They're two VERY different things.
Imagine you're in the midst of a deep sleep when suddenly you're awoken by the sound of screaming. No matter how often it might happen, would you ever really get used to it? What if the person screaming was your child or your partner, and there wasn't anything you could do to help them, or if you were the person breaking the silence of the night with your own terrifying screams?
These screams are a result of night terrors, also known as pavor nocturnus, which is a frightening disorder in which a person becomes terrified during a sleep episode and has no memory of the event after they are fully awake.
Although night terrors are often mistaken for nightmares they're very different. Nightmares usually happen during the second half of the night when dreaming is most intense during REM sleep; the sleeper usually remembers the very vivid and horrifying dreams after they wake up, whereas sleep terrors happen in non-Rem sleep and are made up of brief fragmented impressions. Night terror episodes generally last between 10 and 20 minutes but can seem like an eternity to those witnessing them.
Here are eight signs of night terrors:
1. You have tachycardia (increased heart rate) while sleeping and after you wake up.
2. You exhibit tachypnea (increased breathing rate).
3. You awake suddenly (either partially or fully) from a deep sleep.
4. While asleep you scream, thrash or both.
5. You feel intense fear or terror from an unknown source while asleep.
6. You often awake with dilated pupils.
7. You have elevated blood pressure.
8. You sweat heavily during episodes.
Night terrors are most common in boys ages five to seven but are fairly common in children of both genders ages three to seven, after which they become less common. Despite the accepted belief that children will grow out of it, sleep terrors can persist well into adulthood.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that 6.5 percent of all children are affected by sleep terrors, followed by 2.2 percent of adults (though it's a rare occurrence for those people over the age of 65 to have it). Strangely, many older people complain of night terrors when they sleep on their backs.
Night terrors are underreported. Many who suffer from this disorder just accept it as a part of their life, and since many of the sufferers are children, they rely on their parents to report any problems.
There's no definitive answer on what causes night terrors. In children, emotional stress, high fever or lack of sleep seems to cause it. For adults who experience night terrors, possible causes are PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), bipolar disorder, depressive and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse. Also, there's evidence that suggests that night terrors can be hereditary.
In a piece on Medical Daily, writer Lizette Borreli writes, "Occasionally as an adult, for days on end, months at a time, I wake to find myself in a state of panic, clutching my chest, gasping for air, drenched in sweat. This is typical of those who suffer night terrors."
If you or someone else is having a night terror, you/they shouldn't be woken up. The best thing to do is to be able to scream it out and not to be restrained (unless in real danger). The witness of the night terror shouldn't try to hold the night terror sufferer as that could cause more confusion and fright. They should try to speak calmly and settle the person down with words and a gentle tone of voice.
As for treatment, therapy and relaxation techniques have been known to help, and sometimes, medication. In severe cases, a doctor may prescribe tranquilizer to help the patient relax and sleep without interruption.
Borreli continues, "There is no magic bullet for this sleeping disorder, but there is the modification in lifestyle, such as diet, exercise, and time management. Practicing yoga four to five times a week before bed has helped keep my episodes at bay, as I am able to rid of any stress and anxiety I have built up from the day. Sometimes reducing the occurrence of night terrors may be as simple as taking a deep breath in and a deep breath out."
Nighttime should be a time of relaxation and rest, not intense terror.