Night Terrors vs. Nightmares

What's the Difference?

Night terrors and nightmares are both types of sleep disturbances, but they differ in several key aspects. Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are intense episodes of fear or terror that occur during deep sleep. They often involve screaming, thrashing, and a sense of panic, but the person experiencing them usually has no memory of the event upon waking. On the other hand, nightmares are vivid and disturbing dreams that can cause fear, anxiety, and even wake the person up. Unlike night terrors, nightmares are usually remembered upon waking and can leave a lasting emotional impact. While both can disrupt sleep, night terrors tend to occur in the first few hours of sleep, while nightmares can happen at any time during the sleep cycle.


AttributeNight TerrorsNightmares
DefinitionEpisodes of intense fear and panic during sleep, often accompanied by screaming, thrashing, and a sense of terror.Vivid and disturbing dreams that evoke strong negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, or sadness.
Age GroupMost common in children aged 3-8 years old.Can occur at any age, but more prevalent in children and adolescents.
FrequencyUsually occur in episodes, often multiple times per night, but may happen sporadically.Can occur frequently or infrequently, depending on the individual.
DurationEpisodes typically last for a few minutes, but the person may not fully wake up or remember the event.Dreams usually last for a few minutes to half an hour, and the person usually wakes up and remembers the dream.
Emotional ResponseIntense fear and panic, often accompanied by a sense of impending doom.Strong negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, or sadness.
Physical SymptomsScreaming, thrashing, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, and dilated pupils.Increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing, and sometimes physical movements or vocalizations during sleep.
CausesOften related to sleep disruptions, stress, anxiety, or certain medications.Can be caused by various factors, including stress, trauma, anxiety, medications, or sleep disorders.

Further Detail


Sleep disturbances can be unsettling and disruptive to our overall well-being. Two common sleep disorders that often cause distress are night terrors and nightmares. While both can occur during sleep, they differ in various aspects, including their characteristics, causes, and effects. In this article, we will explore the attributes of night terrors and nightmares, shedding light on their unique features and helping to distinguish between the two.

Night Terrors

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are episodes of intense fear or terror that occur during sleep. They are classified as a parasomnia, a type of sleep disorder that involves abnormal behaviors, emotions, and perceptions during sleep. Night terrors typically occur during the non-REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, usually within the first few hours after falling asleep.

During a night terror episode, the individual may suddenly sit up in bed, scream, or shout in fear. They may appear to be awake, but they are actually in a state of deep sleep and are often unresponsive to attempts to comfort or console them. Other common symptoms include rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, and dilated pupils. Night terrors can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, and the person usually has no memory of the episode upon waking up.

The exact cause of night terrors is not fully understood, but they are believed to be related to an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. Factors such as sleep deprivation, stress, fever, and certain medications can increase the likelihood of experiencing night terrors. They are more common in children, with an estimated 1-6% of children experiencing night terrors at some point. However, night terrors can also occur in adults, albeit less frequently.


Nightmares, on the other hand, are vivid and disturbing dreams that evoke strong feelings of fear, terror, or anxiety. Unlike night terrors, nightmares occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is associated with more vivid dreaming. They often happen in the later part of the night, closer to morning, when REM sleep is more prevalent.

When experiencing a nightmare, individuals may wake up feeling frightened, anxious, or distressed. They can recall the details of the dream and may have difficulty falling back asleep due to the lingering emotions. Nightmares can vary in intensity and content, ranging from common fears like falling or being chased to more complex scenarios that reflect personal anxieties or traumatic experiences.

The causes of nightmares can be multifaceted. They can be triggered by various factors, including stress, anxiety, trauma, medications, substance abuse, or certain medical conditions. Additionally, individuals with mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, may be more prone to experiencing frequent nightmares.

Effects on Sleep and Daily Life

Both night terrors and nightmares can have significant effects on sleep quality and overall well-being. Night terrors can disrupt the sleep of not only the individual experiencing them but also their bed partner or family members who witness the episodes. The sudden screams and movements can be alarming and may cause sleep fragmentation for everyone involved. Consequently, excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and impaired daytime functioning can occur as a result of disrupted sleep patterns.

Similarly, nightmares can lead to sleep disturbances and subsequent daytime consequences. The fear and anxiety experienced during nightmares can cause individuals to wake up frequently throughout the night, leading to fragmented sleep. This can result in feelings of exhaustion, irritability, and difficulty concentrating during the day. Additionally, the emotional impact of nightmares can contribute to increased anxiety and stress levels, further affecting overall mental well-being.

Treatment and Management

When it comes to treatment and management, night terrors and nightmares require different approaches due to their distinct characteristics. Night terrors, being a non-REM parasomnia, are generally not treated with medication. Instead, it is crucial to focus on creating a safe sleep environment and implementing strategies to reduce triggers and promote healthy sleep habits. These may include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, ensuring adequate sleep duration, managing stress levels, and avoiding known triggers such as sleep deprivation or excessive stimulation before bedtime.

On the other hand, nightmares can sometimes be addressed through therapeutic interventions. Techniques such as imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy for nightmares (CBT-N) have shown promising results in reducing nightmare frequency and intensity. These therapies involve working with a mental health professional to explore the underlying causes of nightmares, develop coping strategies, and modify negative thought patterns associated with sleep disturbances.

In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage nightmares, particularly if they are associated with an underlying mental health condition. However, medication is typically considered a last resort and is only used when other non-pharmacological interventions have been ineffective or when the nightmares significantly impact an individual's quality of life.


In summary, night terrors and nightmares are two distinct sleep disorders that differ in their characteristics, causes, and effects. Night terrors are intense episodes of fear or terror that occur during non-REM sleep, while nightmares are vivid and disturbing dreams that happen during REM sleep. Night terrors are more common in children and are often unremembered upon waking, while nightmares can affect individuals of all ages and are often recalled in detail. Both sleep disturbances can disrupt sleep quality and have daytime consequences, but their treatment approaches vary. By understanding the attributes of night terrors and nightmares, individuals and healthcare professionals can better identify and address these sleep disorders, ultimately promoting healthier sleep and overall well-being.

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