Fighting Fright: How Adults Can Manage Night Terrors

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Want to know how to stop night terrors in adults? There are natural cures for adult sleep terror disorders… 

Night terrors are not nightmares. A nightmare is an unpleasant, stressful, and sometimes scary dream, but it does not normally follow you into the waking world. Night terrors, on the other hand, are a sleep disorder that can make sufferers bolt from bed screaming or thrash about as if being attacked. It is frightening, not fully understood, and a potentially dangerous condition both for yourself and anyone sharing a bed with you. Medication is available, but there are some less chemically reliant ways to stop night terrors in adults as well.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors – or night terrors in adults for the purpose of this article – are classified as a form of parasomnia, a category of sleep disorders that involves abnormal movement, behavior, or perception. As mentioned above, a night terror is not the same thing as a nightmare. Nightmares, however unpleasant, are still a form of dreaming. Night terrors, conversely, happen during the non-REM parts of the sleep cycle and can occur as early as 15 minutes after falling asleep.

During an episode, someone experiencing a night terror will suddenly bolt up screaming, jump out of bed, or become extremely combative as their fight-or-flight response is kicked into full gear. Hallucinations are also possible, sometimes manifesting as some form of threat that the victim is trying to fend off or escape from. Night  sweating, rapid heart rate, and rapid breathing are also frequent.

One of the primary signs of a night terror is that the victim is inconsolable. Although they may seem awake, sufferers are confused, not responsive, and can have trouble recalling the event the next day (although some are able to recall their episodes). Night terrors can also overlap with sleepwalking and victims have been known to, for instance, run out of the room.

The thrashing and combative movements sometimes seen during night terrors can be dangerous for anyone the victim is sharing a bed with, as well as anyone who tries to wake them. Some night terror episodes can actually be triggered by physical contact with the sleeping person.

What Causes Night Terrors in Adults?

It is important to distinguish the causes of night terrors from those found in adults and children, as the two are frequently quite different. In children, night terrors are often related to neurological development and are something they usually grow out of by the time they finish puberty. In adults, night terrors usually have a more concrete root cause.

  • Adverse conditions: For adults, night terrors often appear alongside other conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, head injuries, certain depressive or anxiety disorders, migraines, or substance abuse.
  • Sleep apnea: There is some evidence that sleep apnea—a momentary halt in breathing during sleep—can be a cause, but this is still unclear.
  • Stress: Certain circumstances seem to be able to increase a sufferer’s likelihood of experiencing a night terror episode. Physical or emotional stress, sleeping in a new location, having a fever, eating a large meal before bed, or sleep deprivation can contribute to triggering episodes.
  • Medication: Some medications can potentially trigger night terrors as well depending on how the brain reacts.

Natural Ways to Stop Night Terrors In Adults

Since night terrors are still not fully understood, there are limited treatment options available. If you or a loved one suffers from night terrors, or if you are reluctant to use medication or find it ineffective, consider trying some of the following options. As always, it is important to talk to your doctor about the methods you use at home to better manage your conditions:

  • Better sleep habits: Having a set time to go to bed each night, making sure to “power down” about half an hour before retiring, and similar steps can reduce the chance of triggering a night terror episode.
  • Stress management: Prayer, yoga, meditation, counseling, or other methods of relaxing or dealing with ongoing stress can reduce tension and lower the risk of an attack.
  • Scheduled awakening: This involves waking someone up about half an hour before they usually experience a night terror. The method is not easy to employ since it requires that night terror episodes happen around the same time in each occurrence—this isn’t uncommon, but it does not apply to everyone.
  • Address underlying causes: As mentioned, certain psychological conditions like PTSD or bipolar disorder are linked to developing night terrors. Seeking treatment for an underlying cause can go a long way to getting a more peaceful sleep.
  • Create a safe environment: Even though some victims are known to fight or run away during night terrors, they are still not properly aware of their surroundings. It can help to arrange your sleep environment so that it poses minimal danger if such an episode occurs. Closing and/or locking windows and doors, removing tripping hazards, or making sure fragile objects aren’t in reach can go a long way to keeping everyone safe. The exact measures needed depend on how a given individual’s night terrors manifest, since no two are exactly alike.

Advice For Bystanders: How to Help Stop Night Terrors In Adult Victims

It can be frightening and distressing to witness someone in the middle of a night terror episode. Should you find yourself in such a situation, there are a few steps you can take to make sure the event resolves safely for all involved.

  • Remove hazards: If you notice the victim in range of sharp or fragile objects, move them out of reach. It is not unheard of, especially in adult night terrors, for victims to grab at or throw nearby items.
  • Reassure: Speak calmly and acknowledge what, if anything, the victim may be saying or shouting. It is important not to yell or try to tell them that they are just dreaming. Depending on the individual, certain measures may calm them more than others. Some people respond to certain phrases, others may benefit from behind held or hugged.
  • Do not force contact: It is extremely important that you do not try to force physical contact with someone during a night terror episode. If the victim shows resistance, back off immediately for your own safety. Also, be aware that night terror episodes can sometimes be triggered by physical contact. When dealing with a sleeping individual known to have night terrors, try to avoid touching them unless necessary.
  • Remember they are unaware: No matter how awake someone can seem during a night terror, they are not truly awake and have little to no awareness of their surroundings or actions. It is possible that imposing yourself can cause them to see you as part of the threat.
  • You can wake them up: As mentioned, some victims of night terrors will thrash or lash out and be difficult to physically approach. This is not always the case, however. If it is possible to do so safely, it is fine to try and wake up someone in the middle of an episode.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Barclay, R., “Night Terrors,” Healthline web site, January 6, 2014; http://www.healthline.com/health/night-terrors#Overview1.

Lask, B., “Novel and Non-toxic Treatment for Night Terrors,” BMJ, 1988; 592, doi: PMC1834533.
“More Information,” nightterrors.org, http://www.nightterrors.org/more-information/, last accessed November 3, 2015.
“Sleep Terrors (night Terrors),” Mayo Clinic web site, August 12, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/night-terrors/basics/treatment/con-20032552.
Turner, R., “Night Terrors,” World of Lucid Dreaming web site, http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/night-terrors.html, last accessed November 3, 2015.


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Dr. Richard Foxx, MD

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Richard M. Foxx, MD has decades of medical experience with a comprehensive background in endocrinology, aesthetic and laser medicine, gynecology, and sports medicine. He has extensive experience with professional athletes, including several Olympic competitors. Dr. Foxx practices aesthetic and laser medicine, integrative medicine, and anti-aging medicine. He is the founder and Medical Director of the Medical and Skin Spa located in Indian Wells, California, at the Hyatt Regency Resort. Dr. Foxx is certified by the National Board of Medical Examiners... Read Full Bio »