Although both nightmares and night terrors are both scary occurrences, they should not be confused with one another. Night terrors and nightmares happen during different phases of our sleep cycle and show different symptoms. Let’s take a deeper look into the differences between nightmares and night terrors.
Nightmares are unpleasant dreams that can cause a person to wake up out of fear or stress. They typically take place during the REM phase of sleep. Nightmares can be caused by a variety of things, such as sleeping in an uncomfortable position, eating before bed, stress, anxiety, sicknesses, certain medications, and sleep environment. When someone has a nightmare, they usually are awoken from their sleep and unable to fall back asleep for some time. Studies have shown that about 75% of a person’s emotions while dreaming are negative, which can make nightmares a frequent occurrence for some. Although children under the age of 5 don’t suffer from nightmares often, they are more prevalent in older children. As we get older, nightmares occur less and less.
When a person has a nightmare, they have the ability to remember it because it happens during REM sleep. Our sleep cycle switches approximately every 90 minutes from REM sleep to non-REM sleep, and the amount of time spent in REM sleep increases with each new sleep cycle. This means that the longest period of REM sleep happens during the early morning hours, and if you were to wake up during this cycle, it is easier for you to remember any good or bad dreams you may have had. Most nightmares occur in the morning hours.
How are night terrors different from nightmares? Night terrors occur during the non-dream or non-REM sleep cycle. Because they don’t happen during REM sleep, many people cannot recall any details from their night terrors. Night terrors take place during the first few hours of sleep, whereas nightmares happen in the early morning hours (2 – 6 AM).
When someone experiences a night terror, they typically start screaming, thrashing, sweating, kicking or staring in the middle of the night. In some cases, people may begin sleepwalking. If these situations become violent, it can begin causing serious injuries for the person experiencing the sleep terror or others in the home.
The person who is having the sleep terror is not awake while this behavior is taking place. They will not remember any details the following morning. One of the biggest differences between nightmares and night terrors is that the person who has the nightmare is the one who becomes frightened, while the person who witnesses someone having a night terror is the one who becomes scared.
Children between the ages of 2-6 are most prone to suffering from night terrors, and it’s been estimated that night terrors will affect 15% of children. The cause of night terrors is most likely sleep deprivation or erratic sleep schedules. Sometimes stress, fever and medications can also trigger these episodes.
If you or someone you know is suffering from night terrors, you may want to speak to a doctor about it. Although they are not a signal of a psychological disorder, your doctor may recommend healthy sleeping habits to combat the night terrors.
If you have had any experiences with nightmares or night terrors and would like to share them, please feel free to leave a comment below!