January 2021 | Reviewed by: Virginia Skiba, MD and Anne M. Morse, DO
What are sleep terrors?
Sleep terrors, also called night terrors, is a parasomnia. A parasomnia involves undesired events that come along with sleep.
In a typical episode, you will sit up in bed and scream or shout. This scream can include kicking and thrashing. You may say or shout things that others are unable to understand. You will also have a look of intense fear with eyes wide open and heart racing. You may also sweat, breathe heavily, and be very tense. At times, you may even bolt out of bed and run around your home. This response is more common in adults. It may also lead to violent actions. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these types of events from REM sleep behavior disorder.
During an episode of sleep terrors, you will not respond appropriately to voices and can be hard to wake up. Once you do wake up, you will be very confused. You may not know where you are or what is going on. Most often, you will not have any memory of what took place. At times, you may recall brief bits of a dream. The dream may involve great danger or fright. It can take a long time to feel comforted once the episode is over.
These episodes occur most often in the first third of the time that you are asleep. This is during slow-wave sleep or stage N3 of sleep. Episodes in adults can occur at any time in the sleep cycle. Adults are also more likely to recall a dream that was a part of the event.
Serious or even deadly injury can occur with sleep terrors, such as attempts of leaving the house or driving. Attempts to escape from bed or to fight can result in harm to you or others. You may be embarrassed by the sleep terrors. This can greatly affect your relationships.