Adult Night Terrors: Why They Happen and What You Can Do

Night terrors are recurring nighttime episodes that happen while you're asleep. They're also commonly known as sleep terrors.

When a night terror begins, you'll appear to wake up. You might call out, cry, move around, or show other signs of fear and agitation. The episode can last for up to several minutes, though you typically don't wake up. Most people fall right back asleep after a night terror.

Night terrors are more common in young children, but if you've experienced them as an adult, you're not alone. An estimated 2 percent of adults also experience night terrors. In reality, this number may be higher, since people often don't remember having night terrors.

Read on to learn more about night terrors in adults, including their potential causes and how to stop them.

What are the symptoms?

Sitting up in bed and crying out is often the first sign of a night terror.

You may also:

  • scream or cry
  • stare blankly
  • flail or thrash in bed
  • breathe rapidly
  • have an increased heart rate
  • be flushed and sweaty
  • seem confused
  • get up, jump on the bed, or run around the room
  • become aggressive if a partner or family member tries to keep you from running or jumping

Night terrors usually happen earlier in the night, during the first half of your sleeping period. This is when you're in stages 3 and 4 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also called slow-wave sleep. It's uncommon to have them twice in one night, though it can happen.

Typically, night terrors only last for several seconds to a minute, but they can continue for 10 minutes or more. After a night terror, people usually lie back down and sleep, not remembering the episode when they wake up in the morning.

You might experience them on a regular basis or just a few times each year.

What's the difference between a night terror and a bad nightmare?

Night terrors may might seem similar to nightmares, but the two are different.

When you wake up from a nightmare, you'll probably remember at least some of what the dream involved. During night terrors, you remain asleep and usually don't remember what happened when you do wake up.

You might remember a scene from a dream you had during the episode, but it's uncommon to recall any other part of the experience.

What causes them?

Night terrors tend to occur when you partially wake from NREM sleep. This happens during transitions between different stages of sleep, when you're not awake, but you're not fully asleep, either.

Still, the exact underlying cause of this partial awakening and its relation to night terrors is unknown. But experts have identified some factors that might play a role.

n. But experts have identified some factors that might play a role.

Underlying mental health conditions

Many adults who experience night terrors live with mood-related mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Night terrors have also been associated with the experience of trauma and heavy or long-term stress.

Respiratory issues

Respiratory conditions, such as sleep apnea, may also increase your risk of having night terrors.

A small 2003 study involving 20 participants monitored pressure on the esophagus overnight to see how respiratory events could contribute to night terrors.

The results suggest that people with disruptive sleep disorders, including night terrors, are more likely to experience breathing troubles while sleeping. The study's authors believe this could mean that the increased effort needed to breathe may trigger night terrors or related conditions.

Other factors

Other factors that might contribute to night terrors include:

  • travel-related sleep disruptions
  • restless leg syndrome
  • sleep deprivation
  • fatigue
  • medications, including stimulants and some antidepressants
  • fever or illness
  • alcohol use

How are they diagnosed?

Night terrors in adults are sometimes hard to diagnose because they don't occur regularly. Plus, people often don't remember having them.

But if you think you may be having them, or someone else has seen you have them, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.

They may ask you to keep a sleep diary for a short time to help rule out sleep deprivation or other issues. If you sleep with a partner, they can help provide details of the episodes.

To narrow down possible causes, your provider will likely ask:

  • about your health history
  • whether you use substances
  • if you have a family history of sleepwalking, night terrors, or other sleep issues
  • if you're dealing with any stressful situations at work or home
  • about any mental health symptoms you've experienced
  • whether you've ever received treatment for a mental health issue
  • if you have symptoms of breathing-related sleep issues
  • if you take any medications or use natural remedies, especially for sleeping

If they rule out all potential medical causes, including other sleep disorders, they may refer you to a sleep specialist if your symptoms are having a big impact on your sleep quality.

Is there any way to stop them?

Night terrors don't always require treatment. But it might be worth looking into if:

  • night terrors have a negative effect on you, your partner, or your relationship
  • you often wake up not feeling rested
  • the episodes have a negative effect on your usual activities or daily life
  • your actions during an episode (jumping on or off your bed, for example) could harm you or your partner

To effectively treat night terrors, it's important to learn more about what's causing them. Addressing those causes can lead to fewer episodes and may even help them stop entirely.

Build good sleep habits

A good starting point is getting yourself on a regular sleep schedule. You might find that simply getting enough sleep on a regular basis is enough to combat night terrors.

Before bedtime, try to avoid using electronic devices, working, or any stimulating activities. Instead, try meditating, relaxing in a bath, or reading a book. Avoiding caffeine late in the day and limiting alcohol use may also help reduce episodes.

Have someone wake you up

If your night terrors tend to happen around the same time, try waking yourself up about 15 minutes before they would typically happen. Stay awake for several minutes before going back to sleep.

You can do this with an alarm or by asking a partner or family member to wake you.

See a therapist

In some cases, night terrors could be a sign of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. If nothing seems to be working, consider seeking support from a therapist.

They can help you identify any underlying issues and help you develop new coping tools. to develop new coping tools. Biofeedback, hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral therapy can all help.

My partner has night terrors - is there anything I can do?

If you live with or share a bed with a partner who has night terrors, there are a few things you can do to offer comfort and keep them safe.

Avoid trying to wake them up during an episode. You may not be able to wake them, but even if you can, they may become confused or upset. This could cause them to act out physically, potentially injuring both of you.

What you can do is be there to offer comfort without getting physically involved. Talk to them in a calm, quiet voice. If they get out of bed but aren't aggressive, you can try gently guiding them back to bed. But back off as soon as you sense any hesitation or aggression.

If your partner feels embarrassed the next day when they hear about their behavior, try to offer reassurance and understanding. Explain that you know it's out of their control.

Consider showing support by helping them keep track of episodes in a sleep diary or going with them to a therapist appointment.

The bottom line

Night terrors are short, frightening episodes might cause you to cry out or get up in your sleep. While they're more common in children, they can affect adults, too. No one's sure about their exact cause, but several factors may play a role.

If you experience night terrors often or find them difficult to cope with, start by making an appointment with your primary healthcare provider. They can help you narrow down a potential cause or help you find a sleep specialist or therapist.