Night Terror or Nightmare: When You Should See a Sleep Specialist

night terror sleep disorders

Was that terrifying dream you had last night a night terror? First, you have to ask yourself, “What is a night terror?” There is actually a huge difference between night terrors and nightmares, which we’ll explore. Also, we’ve listed out some tips to help you determine when you should seek a doctor’s help for your night terrors.


How Nightmares and Night Terrors Differ:

  • Nightmares make people wake up from their dreams.

  • Night terrors occur when people remain asleep. It is extremely difficult to wake up someone having a night terror and we don’t recommend that you do so.

  • Nightmares typically occur in the last half of the night, during REM sleep.
  • Night terrors typically occur in the first half of the night.

  • Nightmares can cause people to thrash about, cry, kick, talk or even yell in their sleep; however, these actions rarely result in injury.
  • Night terrors can cause people to sit up in bed, scream, kick, sweat, stare with open eyes, run about and even have aggressive behavior.

Check out the movie clip below from Step Brothers for a clearly exaggerated example of the difference between night terrors and nightmares....

When You Should Seek Help For Night Terrors

Consult your doctor if your night terrors:

  • Grow in frequency and become “the norm” especially as your mature into adulthood

  • Consistently disrupt the sleep of you or others to a point that it is impacting your life

  • Make you or others afraid to fall asleep

  • Cause you to be violent, leading to injury of yourself or others

  • Appear to follow the same pattern each time you experience night terrors

It is important to understand the difference between nightmares and night terrors, so if you’re still unsure of what you’re experiencing, it’s safer to ask your physician. If the symptoms of your night terrors are persistently and negatively impacting your life, it is time to get help. In many cases, a sleep study can quickly identify the issue and our sleep specialists can recommend the best source for treatment. Luckily, if you currently have night terrors or know someone who does, they can stop by themselves from time to time. If the problem has persisted for a couple of months, or has gotten worse, we recommend that you speak to your physician.