What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

October 29, 2020 4 mins read
What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

When it comes to understanding the difference between nightmares and night terrors, you’ve probably assumed that they’re both bad dreams, but with scarier storylines, right? Well, not exactly.

These two (unwelcome) sleep disturbers are actually two different sleep conditions with some significant (we mean *NB) differences, which are vital to know if you’ve experienced them. Take a look.

What are nightmares?

A nightmare is a vivid dream that can start like a regular (sweet) dream but twist itself into various narratives of uncomfortable and scary scenarios. Often nightmares will cause you to wake up feeling sweaty, panicked and unwilling to go back to sleep.

Common nightmares are caused by a variety of factors. As we get older, our dreams can reflect our daily stressors. They can also be brought on by certain medications (specific antidepressants), lack of sleep and common sleep disorders. If you’ve been experiencing recurring nightmares, these can often be caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an unattended trauma incident you’ve encountered.

But, no matter what type of nightmare you experience, nightmares are rarely physically harmful and can be treated in various holistic ways.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are considered a parasomnia. This is a sleep disorder that causes abnormal behaviour while sleeping. Although night terrors are less common in adults than they are in kids, it doesn’t make them any less scary when they happen.

During a parasomnia episode or night terror you might thrash around, talk, or do unusual things during sleep – even screaming from intense bouts of fear, or sleepwalking.

When you’re in the throes of a night terror, you will most likely not know that you’re experiencing one, as most of the effects happen during your sleep. If you’re either witnessing someone experiencing a night terror or have a bed-partner that’s seeing you go through one, these are the symptoms to look out for:

  • Sitting up, fully awake and looking scared
  • Sweating
  • Breathing quickly
  • Becoming inconsolable
  • Waking up and not remembering a thing

What can bring on a night terror? A few things can trigger night terrors, including sleep deprivation, overly stressful lifestyle, PTSD, illness, and changes in your sleep schedule.

If you have sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or are indulging in one too many drinks on a night out, this can also increase the likelihood of bringing on a night terror.

The difference between nightmares and night terrors

The key difference between a night terror and a nightmare is when they happen during your sleep cycle.

  • Nightmares typically occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep when vivid dreaming is most likely to happen.
  • Night terrors, on the other hand, happen during non-REM sleep, specifically the transition between stages 3 and 4 during deep sleep. In this stage, you experience extremely slow brainwaves.

Another difference is your reaction. Waking up from a nightmare, (which is never pleasant, as the feeling of the dream can linger on into the day) you will most likely remember it. Waking up after a night terror, however, will leave you with no recollection that anything happened during the night. No matter how traumatic it was in the moment.

It’s important to know that if you or a loved one is experiencing a night terror, the best thing to do is ensure their space is safe, but try not to wake them. Even though witnessing a night terror from the outside can be disturbing, waking someone from a night terror is difficult, and if you do manage to wake them, they’ll be very confused.

To identify if you’re experiencing a night terror look at signals during the day, (because you won’t always know that you’ve had one).

  • Are you feeling more than usually sleepy during the day?
  • Are you feeling unfocused, or are having trouble functioning without a known reason?
  • You could even notice unexplained injuries or bruises caused by mid-night walkabouts or tossing and turning.

These are clear indicators that something is affecting your sleep, and might be time to see a sleep therapist to help understand what’s causing these nightly episodes.

But, no matter if you have nightmares or night terrors, your sleep experience should not get in the way of your life. Sleep is one of the body’s most crucial processes, and nightmares and night terrors can really mess that up. If you’re experiencing unpleasant dream episodes (or think you are), chat to a sleep therapist or your GP to get you back on track to sweeter dreams.