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What is the Difference between Nightmares and Night Terrors?

Posted On March 23, 2014
Difference between Nightmares and Night Terrors
March 23, 2014

nightterrorsLast night you had a dream that there was an intruder in the house who slipped into your bedroom and tried to stab you to death. Well, it was more accurately a nightmare and probably prompted by catching up and watching the latest episode of “Criminal Minds” saved on your DVR player. You were able to describe in vivid detail your nightmare, which left you feeling frightened and anxious until you realized it was not real. But then at times, you have also abruptly woken up from a sound sleep, terrified and confused. In the morning, your bed partner shared that you woke up in the middle of the night in a state of anxiety and were not able to speak for close to 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this is all news to you. These scenarios describe two events that can occur during the night: nightmares and night terrors. But what is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?


At some point in time in our life, most of us have had a nightmare. For the most part, when someone has a nightmare, he or she was having a terrifying dream during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that occurred closer to the morning hours. We usually have shared the content of said dream with a parent or loved one. Why? We can recall the nightmare in great detail and then of course, it is most difficult to get back to sleep.

Nightmares can be caused by a number of triggers:

  • Anxiety
  • Illness
  • Death in the family
  • Medication
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Accident or stressful event

Nightmares are more common in children but the following statistics are startling: one out of every two adults has nightmares on occasion and anywhere from 3 to 8 percent are regularly affected. There are steps that a person can take to reduce the number of nightmares, which are dependent on what is causing the nightmares in the first place, such as lowering stress, and changing medication.

Night Terrors

On the other hand, night terrors typically occur in the first couple of hours after falling asleep and thus not during REM sleep. The person having the night terror does not remember the details of what caused them to wake up in a state of terror. Night terrors are about a terrified feeling or emotion rather than an actual dream. Usually the individual is not fully awake, and the episode can last a couple of minutes with the result being he or she falls back to sleep. It is not uncommon for people who have sleep terrors to also walk or talk while asleep, and have a family history of this sleep disturbance.

When kids are anywhere from 3 to 5 years of age, night terrors are commonplace, especially in boys. Adults under great emotional tension, sleep deprived or who like to consume alcohol will experience an increase in night terrors. Like with sleepwalking, it is important to keep the individual who is susceptible to night terrors safe. As an adult, the drug clonazepam can assist in lowering the incidence of night terrors.

If you have trouble sleeping, contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a free consultation.

About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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