‘Bad dreams’ come in two forms – nightmares and night terrors – and occur in different stages of sleep. Both are terrifying, but nightmares lead to intense anxiety or fear on waking, whereas night terrors are experienced as feelings that cause the sufferer to display panic and fearful behaviour during the dream, none of which can be recalled on waking.
Many children experience nightmares and night terrors to one degree or another, but most grow out of them without suffering any long-term harm. Girls tend to experience them more than boys, and they may be triggered by seemingly routine events and minor anxieties.
Between 2% and 8% of adults suffer from regular nightmares and night terrors. Where nightmares continue into adulthood they can be triggered by stress, from the worries of everyday life to more severe anxiety disorders or depression. Other causes may be life-style or drug related, whilst sleep disorders (for example, narcolepsy or sleep terror disorder) and sleep apnoea may be involved.
- Nightmares are terrifying dreams which lead to intense anxiety or fear on waking. During a nightmare the dreamer remains motionless throughout (except in some sleep disorders), and can often remember vivid details of the bad dream. Nightmares only occur in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – usually later in the night because periods of REM sleep become increasingly longer as the night progresses.
- Night terrors are different from nightmares; as sufferers come out of a cycle of deep sleep they may scream and thrash around in panic, often out of bed and with their eyes open although they are still asleep. Unable to recognise family and the familiar environment, they are hard to calm and comfort – perhaps for several minutes, yet they will have no memory of their behaviour the next morning.
- Nightmares are common in children from two to ten years old, whilst children aged 3-8 commonly experience night terrors. Most children grow out of them. In adults, nightmares are more frequent in women.
- Nightmares and night terrors in children: Nightmares in children can be caused by a worry or a frightening experience. Night terror attacks may be triggered by an increase in a child’s amount of deep sleep, perhaps from tiredness, fever or medicines, or by a disturbance that wakes a child from deep sleep, such as excitement, anxiety or sudden noise. These are more common where there is a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking.
- Whereas the causes of bad dreams in children are relatively simple to discover, nightmares in adults may be triggered by a variety of physical and mental events.
- These include anxiety and more deep seated psychological or psychiatric disorders; another sleep disorder or underlying health problem that affects the functioning of the brain; various drugs and medications; withdrawal from medications and substances such as alcohol or too much alcohol; a late-night spicy or heavy meal; sleep deprivation or illness with a fever.
Learn more about the causes of nightmares
- Most children simply grow out of nightmares and night terrors. However, if they are frequent and leading to daytime drowsiness, something may be at the root of them that could be easily treated, such as large tonsils that could be causing breathing problems at night.
- If nightmares interrupt an adult’s sleep on more than once a week, and if they stop you from getting a good night’s rest, or stop you performing your daily activities it’s important to establish what’s causing them. At the South West Sleep Clinic we will examine you and ask you questions about your health, your medication, your life-style and your worries and anxieties.
- Nightmares that are suspected to be a feature of narcolepsy, REM sleep behaviour disorder or due to drugs may warrant investigation such as polysomnography.
- If your nightmares started shortly after you began taking a new medication, contact your doctor. He or she will let you know whether to stop taking that medication.
- Usually no treatment is required for nightmares, although if an older child has frequent nightmares you may need to speak to a psychologist.
- A child’s night terrors can be frightening to witness, but they don’t cause any harm long-term. We can give you reassurance and advise you on how to manage your child’s sleep problem.
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