Night terrors, or screaming in your sleep, can be scary and worrisome, but they’re generally harmless. Although night terrors are most common in children, adults can also experience them.

Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, are what happens when you’re screaming in your sleep, flailing, or experiencing intense fear while sleeping.

Chief clinical officer at Haven Health Management Sal Raichbach explains that night terrors are often mistaken for nightmares.

But, Raichbach details that “Unlike nightmares, people do not wake up during night terrors, and they often don’t have much recollection of the event the next morning.”

Night terrors affect children more often than adults, with 30% of children experiencing them. By the time children become teenagers, they’ll likely have outgrown them, but that’s not always the case.

Some of the things that can cause you to scream in your sleep include:

  • being extremely tired
  • having a fever
  • experiencing sleep deprivation
  • excessive stress
  • disruptions to your sleep schedule
  • having a migraine
  • sleeping somewhere unfamiliar
  • genetics

In some cases, underlying conditions can cause night terrors. These conditions may include:

Other symptoms of night terrors

Sleepwalking commonly occurs when someone has a night terror, although the sleep terror may only last for a few seconds or minutes.

Sometimes, the episodes last longer, but it’s not likely, and they occur during the first 3 or 4 hours of a sleep cycle. Other symptoms of night terrors include:

  • screaming or shouting during sleep
  • kicking or thrashing without waking up
  • sitting up in bed while still asleep and looking frightened
  • staring wide-eyed and having dilated pupils
  • sweating
  • heavy breathing
  • racing pulse
  • flushed face
  • being hard to wake up and seeming confused
  • not remembering the episode upon waking up
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Sleep terrors typically don’t cause physical issues, but you should seek treatment if they interfere with your sleep health or put you in danger.

You may also want to see a professional if the night terrors cause embarrassment or disrupt others in your home. Treatment options may include:

  • Addressing underlying conditions: If underlying conditions cause night terrors, a professional will want to address those concerns to alleviate your symptoms.
  • Visiting a therapist: If excessive stress causes sleep terrors, easing the issue will make a difference. Consider visiting a therapist for help because they can work with you to cope and relax.

You can make some changes at home to help reduce and prevent the symptoms of night terrors. These options include:

1. Getting enough sleep

You’re more likely to have night terrors when you’re overly tired. Going to bed earlier can help, or you can take a short nap during the day so you’re not as tired at night.

2. Implementing a bedtime routine

Your bedtime routine should be relaxing, so consider quiet activities that help you feel calm. Some ideas include reading a book, taking a warm bath, or doing puzzles before bed.

You can also meditate or do relaxation exercises before closing your eyes.

3. Finding ways to cope with stress

Knowing your stress triggers, you can address them and find ways to cope. Coping with what’s bothering you or causes you to worry can make all the difference in avoiding night terrors.

4. Waking before a night terror

If you can track the time of night your issues arise, you can set an alarm so you wake up a little before it typically occurs. Then, after staying up for 15-20 minutes, you can go back to sleep and decrease your risk of night terror.

It’s important to note that setting an alarm is only effective if you have night terrors at the same time every night.

5. Try to avoid stimulants before bed

Stimulants like caffeine can trigger night terrors if you consume them within 5 hours of bedtime. Consider replacing coffee with a warm drink, such as caffeine-free tea or lemon water, to help reduce the occurrence of night terrors.

6. Minimize sleep disruptions

Licensed psychologist with a certificate in sleep psychology Dan Ford from The Better Sleep Clinic, explains that “practicing good sleep hygiene and minimizing sleep disruptors are thought to help prevent night terror events occurring.”

Disruptions could include having a TV or music playing while you sleep; surprisingly, white noise machines can disrupt your sleep.

Night terrors are disruptive and alarming, but there are some steps you can take to ease the episodes, such as:

  • creating a relaxing bedtime routine
  • avoiding caffeine before bed
  • minimizing sleep disruptions

If you or your child experiences sleep terrors, consider speaking with a therapist to help you cope with screaming while sleeping, especially if symptoms interfere with your day-to-day.

If you’re unsure of where to get started when finding a therapist, Psych Central’s hub for finding mental health support can help.