When I was a teenager, I babysat for a boy who was around 7 years old. We’ll call him Christopher. I usually babysat Christopher on Friday nights and placed him in bed promptly at 9:00 pm.
Now, the first time the following incident occurred, I’m not going to play it cool and say I was the pillar of babysitting strength. Nope, not me. I freaked out. There I was on the phone, as any teenage girl would be, when suddenly, I was horrified to hear blood-curdling screams coming from Christopher’s room. My heart skipped a beat as I looked at the clock—9:30 pm. It couldn’t be Christopher, I told myself. I just placed him in bed. It must have been the TV. But, when I heard the cries again, I immediately knew it was poor Christopher.
I dropped the phone and ran up the stairs to Christopher’s room. What I saw was startling to say the least. Christopher was sitting up straight on his bed, eyes wide open, yelling bloody murder at the top of his lungs. I ran over to him, jumped on the bed, and took him in my arms hoping to stop the horrifying screams. I yelled, “Chris! Chris! Wake up! What’s wrong?” I was practically in tears ready to call 911. Then, all of a sudden, Christopher awoke from the strange ordeal. He looked slowly around the room and asked me what happened. I told him that he must have had a nightmare. Confused, he looked at me and said, “Really? I didn’t have a nightmare.” And immediately fell back to sleep. What the…?
Dazed, I ran downstairs and called his parents. I told his mother what had happened. She calmly replied, “Oh, that. That’s nothing. He always gets night terrors.”
“Night terrors?” I thought. “What the heck are night terrors? And, oh, yeah… Thanks for the warning.”
What are Night Terrors?
Let’s get one thing straight—nightmares and night terrors are not the same thing. In fact, they are very different. On a basic level, nightmares are dreams that a person can vividly remember when they awake. Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors or pavor nocturnus, are not dreams. Pavor nocturnus is a frightening sleep disorder in which a person becomes terrified during a sleep episode, then has no memory of the event after they fully awake.
During a night-terror episode, the person will partially wake up screaming, moaning, or gasping for air. Most of the time, the subject cannot be completely awoken, nor comforted. It is difficult to wake up someone during a night terror, and if left alone, most will simply settle back to sleep without waking. Either awoken or left to sleep, the person oftentimes has no recollection of the episode whatsoever.
Symptoms of Night Terrors
You can usually tell if a person is having a night terror by the bone-chilling screams. Needless to say, it is no fun to have a sleep partner who is prone to this disorder. Other symptoms include—
- Breathing fast
- Rapid heart rate
- A look of fear or panic
- Large pupils
Who are Most Prone to Night Terrors?
Night terrors are most common in children 2 through 6 years old, but can occur at any age. They affect about three percent of children. Episodes usually occur during the first couple hours of sleep, and recur for a couple of weeks. Then, they seem to disappear. The good news is that most children will outgrow night terrors. The number of episodes usually decreases after age 10.
However, this does not mean that everyone will outgrow night terrors. Unfortunatley, adults can experience this problem, too. Although not as prevelent in adults, many older people complain of night terrors when sleeping on their backs.
What Causes Night Terrors?
One cannot definitively say what causes night terrors. In children, emotional stress, high fever, or lack of sleep seem to cause it. Also, evidence has shown that night terrors can be hereditary.
In adults, stress and lack of sleep seem to be triggers, as well as emotional tension and the use of alcohol.
What Can You Do During a Night Terror?
As difficult as this may be (practically impossible if you ask me), do not wake up the person having a night terror. Do not intervene. Let the person scream it out. Unless the person is in danger, do not restrain him or her. If you do try to hold the person, that may cause more confusion and fright.
Instead, try to speak calmly to the individual and tell him or her that you are there. Try to settle the person down with words, not actions. So, in other words, when I screamed “Chris! Chris! Wake up! What’s wrong?” when Christopher experienced a night terror, that was the wrong thing to do. (Try telling that to a scared teenage babysitter!)
How Can Night Terrors be Treated?
As mentioned before, most children will outgrow night terrors. But in the mean time, night terrors are mostly treated by:
- Gentleness and comfort
- Disposal of anything nearby that can potentially be harmful
- Avoidance of loud movements or voices that might frighten the person further
Although usually unnecessary, some doctors may advise other treatment options, such as counseling or psychotherapy. Others may prescribe Benzodiazepine medications, such as diazepam or the over-the-counter Benadryl elixir.
When night terrors hit, keep in mind that the sufferer is completely unaware that he or she is “dreaming.” They believe the night terror is reality. Then, they wake up as if nothing ever happened. Which leads me to question: Are night terrors more frightening for the person who endures them, or for the person who endures hearing them? I think the verdict is out on that one.
Blaszczak, J. (2006). Things that go “Ahhhhh!” in the Night. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/things-that-go-%e2%80%9cahhhhh%e2%80%9d-in-the-night/000122
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.