Night Terrors in Adults

Night terrors, as the name suggests, can be a particularly frightening. While often considered to be a childhood complaint, a small percentage of adults can suffer from this condition as well, and at times, night terrors in adults can sometimes be a sign of other underlying health issues.

What is a night terror?

According to the Mayo Clinic, night terrors are episodes of nighttime disturbance with a wide variety of possible signs and symptoms, including:

  • sitting up in bed and screaming or shouting
  • feelings of intense fear
  • thrashing or flailing of the limbs during sleep
  • walking during sleep
  • sweating
  • heavy breathing
  • pupil dilation
  • increased heart rate
  • appearing to be awake (even though the individual remains asleep)
  • difficulty waking, with confusion or aggression resulting if individual is awakened
  • failing to remember the episode the day after

What causes night terrors?

MD Edge reports that around 5% of adults experience night terrors, but what causes night terrors in adults in the first place?

According to Johns Hopkins, night terrors are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. A night terror is not the same thing as a dream or a nightmare; it is an intense, frightening reaction that occurs in between sleep stages. Most often, these episodes happen in the first third of the sleep cycle, during the transition from the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM sleep) to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Additionally, it is believed that genetics play a role in these episodes: about 80% of individuals who experience night terrors have a family member who has had them or who walks in their sleep. The Mayo Clinic also reports that other factors may contribute to night terrors include sleep deprivation, disrupted sleep schedules, stress, certain medications and fever.

Night Terrors in Adults

While night terrors are not considered as serious in childhood and many children outgrow them, they can be a cause for concern in adults. Sleep terrors in adults are associated with a variety of health issues. For many adults who experience night terrors, they can be a result of high amounts of stress/anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

However, the most immediate threat of night terrors is due to the potential for aggressive behavior during an episode of sleep. Because of this, individuals that experience night terrors are at risk for injuring themselves or those around them when experiencing an episode. This is why it is a good idea for an adult to consult a physician if he or she experiences any of these night terrors causes the episodes become a problem.

Treatment for Night Terror Episodes

If you’re wondering how to deal with night terrors, you’re not alone. While the Mayo Clinic notes that treatment is usually not necessary for occasional night terrors, interventions may be needed if an individual suffers from interrupted sleep, daytime fatigue or if injury has occurred as a result of an episode. A medical professional should also be consulted if psychosocial issues such as embarrassment or shame about the issue are experienced or if social relationships are being impaired.

If you or someone you know experiences night terrors, MD Edge provides a variety of ways in which this problem can be improved. Possible treatments include:

  • Treating any underlying conditions (such as sleep apnea).
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene (such as following a sleep schedule and avoiding stimulants, alcohol or screen time before bed).
  • Undergoing therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy to help change thoughts/behaviors that may be contributing to the sleep terror episodes.
  • Taking prescribed medications to help reduce night terror episodes.

Although, sleep terrors in adults are uncommon, they are treatable. There are a variety of possible treatments available from lifestyle changes to pharmacotherapy that can help improve your sleep quality!

About The Author

Dr. Brian Wu is an MD, Ph.D. graduate from USC and is currently a psychiatrist in training. He enjoys writing and transforming health topics into engaging stories. Dr. Wu has published over 15 books on Amazon and aims to work with patients to create their ideal, meaningful lives.

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