Few things in life are as rejuvenating as a night of good sleep. Hence, it is no surprise that nature, being her mischievous self, chooses this crucial activity as the time to play some of its most cruel jokes.
From sleep disorders like obstructive apnea and insomnia to good old sleep deprivation, stemming from any small imbalance in your emotional or physical state, there is no shortage of factors that can mess up your sleep time.
However, some of the most jarring of these potential impediments to good sleep are night terrors and nightmares—two hair-raising sleep disruptors that can leave sleepers, especially children, panicking, distraught, and in extreme cases, sleep-deprived.
While both conditions can have similar impacts on the individual, if you want to figure out the best way to deal with them, you are better off putting the finger on which of particular sleep problems you have on your hands.
What are Nightmares?
Everyone knows what a bad dream is. Whether it’s a vivid clip of a confidant stabbing you in the back or a graphic mix of a Hollywood fantasy thriller and Get Out, the crux of nightmares is that they are dreams that scare you.
Nightmares are what happens when your subconscious creates a scary movie out of your worst fears. Plus, in most cases, the sleeper does not have an inkling that the entire episode is not real until the child wakes.
However, with most nightmares, you won’t be sleeping for long, as episodes are often strong enough to jolt you awake.
Here, sleepers will typically wake up right before some dreadful event—like witnessing a murder or falling off a ledge in the timeline occurs. Consequently, with nightmares, sleepers will often awake with a vivid, detailed recollection of the dream accompanied by intense feelings of fear.
Nightmares are one of the most common sleep disturbances, and they can affect people of all age groups. However, young children aged 3-12 typically post a significantly higher frequency of these occurrences.
While nightmares can often be wild, absurd scenes, they often include frightening or anxiety-inducing elements that the child encountered in real life.
What are Night Terrors?
Night terrors are another form of sleep disruption that is quite similar to nightmares but are often more intense, and they pack a few more added elements to the experience.
With night terrors, the sleeper undergoes dramatic episodes that can include screaming, thrashing around, kicking, all while in a state of intense panic. However, unlike nightmares, with night terrors, the child typically stays sleeping during and after the episode, even though they may stare at you, or also bring you into the fantasy plotline.
Night terrors occur when due to the activation of certain parts of the central nervous system that leaves the sleeper partially awake, acting out events, with no conscious input and zero recollection of the episode afterward.
Night terrors often start slow, with some groans and twitches that can then escalate into immense movement and noise, and in extreme cases, some violent tendencies. Throughout the episode, the sleeper often remains in a state of intense panic, while feeling threatened boxed in.
Like nightmares, sleep terrors occurrence is exceptionally high in children, with many kids in the 4-12 age group reporting at least an incident. Night terror episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to as much as 30 minutes.
Read More: What’s a Night Terror and Can Doctors Help?
Night Terrors vs. Nightmares
Both night terrors and nightmares are similar in that they are both fear-based sleep disturbances that can leave kids in comparable states of disquiet and panic. So, how do you tell them apart?
When They Occur
One of the fastest ways to tell if your child is having a night terror or nightmare is by the timing of the incident.
Dreams are images and story plots that our minds involuntarily creates during sleep. Since we tend to become more unconscious during deep sleep, as we enter more extended periods of REM sleep, dreaming intensifies. Consequently, most nightmares occur during the wee hours of the morning.
Night terrors, on the other hand, tend to occur in the first few hours of sleep. Night terrors stem from an over-arousal of the central nervous system, which often happens during the transition from non-REM stages to REM sleep. Hence, night terrors typically occur within 3 hours of falling asleep.
Furthermore, while nightmares tend to intensify gradually, sleep terrors can escalate quickly, with the sleeper going from calm sleep to a state of intense panic and loud screaming in only a few minutes.
Memory and Awareness
Another reliable gauge for whether your child had a night terror or nightmare is how much of the event they remember.
With nightmares, the dreamer wakes with some form of recollection of the dream. While some sleepers can retell the entire dream, others can only recall fragments, and even with entirely forgotten nightmares, the child can often at least remember that he had one.
However, with night terrors, the sleeper typically has no awareness of the episode occurring, nor can they figure out while they are in a state of panic. Consequently, children often awake from night terrors in a heightened state of confusion, which can make them incredibly hard to console.
Furthermore, during a night terror episode, your kid may engage in moving around, dialogue, and acting out a fantasy plotline, yet have no recollection of any aspect of the experience in the morning.
However, some adults may recall dream fragments from their night terror episodes.
Another easy way to tell both sleep disturbances apart is the degree of body movement that your kid exhibits.
While nightmares can evoke some amount of body movement, here, motion often stays limited to tossing and turning, and occasional noises. However, with night terrors, children can exhibit significantly more body movement.
Night terror episodes often include a high frequency of kicking and thrashing, and in extreme cases, children can sleepwalk, move briskly, and even turn aggressive when restrained.
This tendency for enhanced mobility stems from the fact that the fantasy in most night terror episodes follow common themes of feeling trapped, constricted, or claustrophobia. Nightmares, on the other hand, can have significantly more far-ranging ideas, and often incorporate elements of real-world experience.
According to relevant scientific literature, the source of night terrors is an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep that activates speech and movement without waking the sleeper.
While this arousal often is a side-effect of the developing nervous system in children, some kids can also inherit a predisposition that increases their chances of experiencing night terror episodes.
Dreams—and nightmares, are a more universal aspect of the human experience that frequently affect people of all ages and appear to draw influences from many aspects of our waking lives.
While there is no scientific consensus on why we dream, leading theories suggest that they could be a way for the brain to process stimuli, memories, emotions, and information it encountered during the day.
However, both night terrors and nightmares can sometimes share similar causal links. Some psychological, biological, or environmental triggers can also cause either condition. Some of these triggers include:
- Travel or relocation
- Underlying sleep problems like sleep apnea
- Side effects of medications
- Excessive eating before bed
Furthermore, both night terrors and nightmares can contribute to other sleep health issues like daytime fatigue and insomnia, as well as psychological problems like anxiety and depression.
Are Night Terrors Worse than Nightmares?
From the perspective of the sleeper, the lack of awareness with night terrors can make them feel subjectively worse than a nightmare. It is significantly easier to make sense of a nightmare when you wake than a sleep terror episode.
Consequently, children that awake from a scary dream are typically significantly easier to comfort. Sleep terror episodes, on the other hand, can leave kids in a heightened state of confusion that can take hours to shake.
Plus, with night terrors, due to the excessive body movement that accompanies episodes, there is also an increased risk of physical injury.
However, with either condition, most cases shouldn’t warrant too much worry and will typically have no lasting impact on the sleeper.