Night terrors are recurring episodes where you might cry out, move around erratically, or show other signs of distress while you sleep. And unless a startled partner or roomie relays all the deets of your shouting and flailing — you might not know it’s even happening.
But wait, aren’t night terrors just a kid thing? Even though night terrors are more common in kids, an estimated 1 to 2 percent of adults get them, too. And since many people don’t remember these episodes, this figure could be higher.
If you’re an adult with night terrors, here’s what to know.
What causes night terrors in adults?
Scientists don’t exactly know what causes night terrors in adults (or people of all ages). Mental health conditions, breathing issues, and other factors that impact sleep (e.g., restless leg syndrome and alcohol) may play a role.
Night terrors often begin with you sitting up and bed and crying out. These episodes can last from 45 to 90 minutes, though timing can vary a lot. Night terrors can also happen on the reg or just a few times a year.
Other night terror symptoms may include:
- thrashing or flailing
- breathing rapidly
- staring blankly
- fast heart rate
- feeling flushed or sweaty
- appearing confused or disoriented
- jumping or running around
- becoming aggressive (especially if someone tries to stop you)
Most night terrors happen during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which is basically a state between sleep and awake. In this state, you’re unlikely to wake up during the episode or recall WTF happened. But compared to kids, adults are more likely to get night terrors at any stage of the sleep cycle, which means they’re also more likely to remember what went down.
If an adult thrashes during a night terror, they may also injure themselves or anyone nearby.
Night terrors are a type of parasomnia — aka a sleep disorder that involves physical events or experiences that disrupt your Zzz’s.
No one knows why so many kids (about 30 percent) get night terrors compared to just 2 percent of adults. Here’s a look at some potential night terror causes if you’re all grown up.
Mental health conditions
Some experts believe adults who have night terrors tend to live with mood-related mental health conditions like:
Night terrors may also be associated with trauma or chronic stress.
But since there’s limited research on the link between night terrors and mental health conditions, we don’t know if it’s a legit cause.
Respiratory conditions like sleep apnea could potentially boost your risk of having night terrors.
In a small 2003 study of 20 people, researchers found that those with disruptive sleep disorders (like night terrors) were more likely to experience breathing troubles while sleeping. Scientists think the extra effort needed to breathe might trigger arousals and abrupt wake-up calls that look like night terrors.
Though the research is limited, they could be onto something.
Other factors that affect sleep
The research on what causes night terrors is pretty murky, but other factors that *might* cause these dreamtime episodes include:
- restless leg syndrome
- sleep deprivation
- travel-related sleep disruptions
- meds like stimulants or antidepressants
- fever or illness
- alcohol use
They might both be frightening, but night terrors and nightmares aren’t one and the same.
Here are the main distinctions between the two:
- During a night terror, you’re unlikely to wake up. You’re much more likely to wake up during a nightmare.
- You’ll typically stay asleep during a night terror and won’t know what happened. When you wake up mid-nightmare, you’ll usually remember the gist of it. (Maybe that vampire was inches away from your neck, or your boss was just about to fire you!)
- Night terrors typically happen during NREM sleep. Meanwhile, nightmares usually happen during REM sleep.
- Your eyes will often be open during night terrors. Your eyes won’t look wide awake during your average nightmare.
While there’s currently no tried-and-true way to stop night terrors, the following prevention tips might help.
Create a healthy sleep routine
Getting more restful sleep on a regular basis might help halt your night terrors. To create a more peaceful sleep regimen, try these tips for better Zzz’s:
- Ban blue light at night. You’ve prob heard this one before, and that’s because it really helps! Try to turn off your TV, laptop, smartphone, and all other electronics at least an hour before bed. Blue light and excess stimulation before shuteye can disrupt your sleep rhythm.
- Relax and unwind. Try taking a bath, meditating, or reading a book before bed instead (preferably not true crime or a Stephen King novel!). Create a quiet, comfy, and dark space to sleep. Blackout curtains or white noise might help.
- Curb caffeine and alcohol. Limiting caffeine and alcohol — especially later in the day — might help you rest more easily and avoid sleep disturbances.
- Reserve your bed is for sleep and sex. Doing other things like working, watching TV, or taking stressful phone calls in bed can cause your brain to think that bedtime = awake time. Reserving your bed for sleep and sex may help create the cozy sanctuary you need to doze off more deeply.
Seek support from loved ones
If your night terrors tend to go down around a certain time, try setting an alarm or having a loved one wake you up about 15 minutes before an episode. Stay awake for about 10 minutes before falling back asleep.
Experts usually advise against rousing someone mid-episode, since there’s always the possibility that the person experiencing the night terror could react violently.
Alleviate stress and deal with trauma
Since night terrors could possibly signal underlying stress, trauma, anxiety, or depression, it may help to address these concerns. Some potential ways to heal include:
- visiting a therapist or another mental health professional
- meditating regularly
- practicing yoga
- doing deep breathing exercises
- practicing mindfulness
How to help a partner with night terrors
- Don’t wake up your loved one mid-episode. They could become confused, upset, or violent.
- Lend nonphysical comfort. Talk to them in a calm, quiet voice. Maybe gently suggest that they return to bed.
- The day after the incident, try to offer support and understanding.
- Consider encouraging them to track episodes in a sleep journal, visit a therapist or doctor, or take up a mindfulness practice like meditation.
Night terrors aren’t technically a part of a diagnosable condition according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Instead, they’re a combo of conditions like nightmare disorder, NREM sleep arousal disorder, and REM sleep behavior disorder.
Though night terrors don’t always require treatment, you may want to see a pro if you:
- feel they have a negative impact on you, your roommate(s), partner, or family
- often wake up still tired
- feel the episodes affect your day-to-day life
- think your actions during episodes could harm you or someone else
Visiting a sleep specialist or reaching out to a doctor or therapist may help you find the relief you need.
Night terrors are episodes that can cause you to shout, flail or do other things in your sleep. Even though they’re more common in children, adults get them, too.
No one knows for sure what causes night terrors, but underlying stress, anxiety, or other mental health conditions could play a role.
If you feel like your night terrors are negatively impacting your life or could harm you or a loved one, talking with a doctor, sleep specialist, or therapist may help you find the support you need.