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Night Terrors

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  • November 2005
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Night Terrors
"Every night around 10:30 Billy Bolts out of bed and starts screaming uncontrollably. I often find him running around his room looking frantic. I try to hold him, but he just pushes me away. I don't understand what is happening. He looks terrified, and it frightens me" (Mindell 257).

The above quote represents a classic episode of night terrors, or sleep terrors (the terms are interchangeable). Night terrors – called incubus in adults and pavor nocturnus in children (Durand 31) – fall into a larger category of sleep disorders called parasomnias, which are sleep disorders that are classified by abnormal or paranormal brain activity (psychnet). It's also considered a disorder of "partial arousal", where the child is in a mixed state of both sleep and awakenness. The child will be awake enough to act out (sometimes aggressively), but asleep enough not to be aware of what is going on (Mindell 257, 258). Although they may appear to be nightmares, night terrors are significantly different in various ways.

Similarities begin when the episode begins, usually with a piercing scream. The child will look as though he/she is extremely terrified; physical effects might include dilated pupils, rapid breathing and pulse, racing heart and sweating, and an overall look of agitation (Mindell 259). In the throes of a night terror, a child "may bolt out of bed and run around the room or even out of the house" (Mindell 259). During an extreme episode, children might possibly hurt themselves or those trying to help calm them down. With nightmares, children are easily awakened and usually seek the comfort of a parent. Such is not the case with night terrors. As stated above, the child might try to harm the one trying to comfort them, and they are not easily awakened. Also, nightmares occur during the REM, or dreaming, stages of sleep. Night terrors occur during NREM, or non-dreaming sleep, which is during very deep sleep (stages III or IV) (Durand...