Nightmare vs Night Terror – Do You Experience Scary Moments at Night?

Ahh nightmare vs night terror! What is the difference between the two? These scary experiences can happen to anybody. These sleep disorders can be very alarming for all of the parties involved.

Often times, it is a cliche that a nightmare will conclude with a person waking up very quickly and letting out a scream. The cliche for night terrors is a person who is rolling around and making distressful sound while they are asleep.

That is a scene that you most likely have seen before either in real life or in some other form of media.

nightmare vs night terror.

In this article, you will learn about nightmares and night terrors, how the two sleep disorders contrast from one another and other interesting facts about these two sleep disorders.

Table of Contents

  1. Differences Between Nightmares And Night Terrors
  2. Ways Parents Can Assist Their Children With Nightmares
  3. Ways Parents Can Assist Their Children With Night Terrrors
  4. Tips For Adults Who Have Nightmares
  5. Specialist Assistance And Other Suggestions

1) Differences Between Nightmares And Night Terrors

Nightmares and night terrors do resemble one another. However, both of these sleep disorders have their differences.


A nightmare is a dream which can cause intense feelings of anxiety, stress, terror, or panic. A classic example of a nightmare is being trapped in a room while attempting to escape from something else at the same time.

A good number of adults still do get nightmares, even though nightmares happen more frequently in children between the ages of three to six.

Nightmares happen during the Rapid Eye Movement Phase (REM) stage of sleep, which helps explain why they happen in the later part of the night.

Most people typically do not make any sounds or move when they have a nightmare episode. However, when you do wake up you will most likely recall it very well with feelings of fear or anxiousness.

nightmare vs night terror

Night Terrors

The primary difference between night terrors and nightmares is that you normally do not wake up from an episode of night terrors.

Although, you might have some memory of feeling terrified in the morning. Often times it is mostly  a child’s parent that has to endure the displeasing experience.

Night terrors happen most often in children between the ages of 4 and 12. They can begin to lash out, toss/turn erratically, shout, kick and roll while they are in bed.

They can also sit upright and even appear awake in the duration of an episode, although the majority of the time they will not respond if you attempt to speak or make contact with them.

In spite of how alarming it can be to observe someone who displays intense fear such as this. The good news is that the child will typically calm down again after a short period of time.

This sleep disorder normally occurs during the non-REM sleep stage primarily during slow wave sleep that is referred to as “deep sleep”. This typically happens one to two hours after going to sleep.

Man holding chainsaw.

Not To Be Mixed Up With Other Sleep Disorders

In the duration of the night, it is easy to mix up one distasteful or unusual experience with another.

Exploding Head Syndrome

A rare sleep disorder which wins the award for the best title for unusual sleep disorders is exploding head syndrome.

This can be very unsettling and involves hearing a deafening sound inside one’s head which can sound like an explosion, gunshot, slamming, crashing, yelling, and many other loud noises.

Sleep Hallucinations

In the event that your child frequently wakes up stating that they can observe things in the dark such as centipedes or other insects that are moving about. It is possible that they are experiencing sleep hallucinations.

Sleep Paralysis

The most frightening of all sleep disorders in the parainsomnia category is sleep paralysis. This is theorized to happen when your body shuts down, yet your brain is still active at the same time.

Sleep paralysis often results in feeling as though there is an evil force that is either present in the room or you have the feeling that something evil is compressing you.

2) Ways Parents Can Assist Their Children With Nightmares


The main causes of nightmares for children and adults is still not fully understood. Although, experts do have some thoughts on the subject.

It is possibly easier to look at the theories as to why do we have dreams with regard to whether we state it as a bad or a good dream. One of the most popular theories is that dreams are a method as to how we handle the intricaties of life and how we are as humans.

The dreams that we have is one method of how we process feelings and thoughts about all of the events that happen in our lives. These dreams are also a method of handling any fears, worries, concerns, and any type of tension that we may possess.

Dream rock.

This reasoning helps to explain why many children can experience nightmares when there are major events or shifts that take place in a child’s life.

Examples of major events and shifts that happen are moving to a new home, starting at a new school, parents being divorced/separated or the birth and death of family members.

Nightmares in children can also occur after a child has witnessed something traumatizing such as another person involved a tragic accident, injuries that another person has acquired and other horrendous events.

As most of us aware, reading, hearing or watching scary media can provoke nightmares as well.

Actions That Parents Can Take

Even though it seems impossible for parents to cease nightmares all together for their children, there are actions that you can take to help your children be more comfortable and make them feel that sleep is a positive thing.

This is a list of actions that are helpful:

  1. Before your child’s bedtime, you should read to them one of the outstanding children’s book that were designed to help children with anxiety about the dark and the monsters that lurk within them. Conduct an online search and you will discover the numerous lists of great examples.
  2. Refrain them playing any scary games which can make them feel afraid.
  3. Do not let them read any scary books before their bedtime.
  4. Do not let them watch any frightening or horror movies which can cause them to feel agitated.
  5. Ensure that their bed is comfortable, relaxing and warm not hot. Providing them with a night light or a soft toy will benefit your child.
  6. Schedule some time with your child prior to the bedtime doing something that makes them feel secure, cozy, and relaxed. Suggestions for relaxing activities are reading a book together, helping them take a bath, and playing a relaxing game.
  7. Make sure that they have consistent bedtime routine and designated bedtime set in place.

Things That You Can Do If Your Child Wakes Up Frightened From A Nightmare

The majority of the time a child will not wake up from a sleep terror, however a child can wake up from nightmare and they might be concerned about going back to sleep.

The truth is that most adults will the very same after a disturbing dream. You can take the following steps to help calm them down:

  1. Speak to them about what just happened, inform them it was a bad dream, comfort them by letting them know that what they experienced was not real and is not going to occur to them in the real world. This only needs to be a short conversation and with a few words. This will calm down your child.
    Ensure them that it is normal to have a scary dream and that it occasionally happens to everyone.
  2. Ensure them that you are there for them and that they can feel secure with you around.
  3. Check around for monsters or other scary things. This will give them peace of mind knowing that there is nothing in the room that can get them.
  4. Turn on a night light.
  5. Provide them with their favorite pillow, blanket, or toy.
  6. The following day you should bring up what happened in order to help your child conquer what was bothering them. You can also attempt to role-play what was frightening your child whether that was a monster or other scary being to be more fun and less threatening.

A final suggestion is that you can always seek a medical professional if your child is experiencing nightmares and night terrors to the level that disrupts their daily life, health, daytime performance and mental development.

The medical professional can possibly refer you to a specialist who can find a method that will assist your family more. This route is practical, especially if your child has reoccurring nightmares or night terrors due to a traumatic event that they may have witnessed.

3) Ways Parents Can Assist Their Children With Night Terrors


As with many sleep disorders, the exact cause of sleep terrors are not fully known. One of the most prevalent theories suggests that sleep terrors are caused by the central nervous system being too busy when a person is asleep.

The central nervous system is a regulator of brain activity in the body and is still developing during a person’s childhood, maybe their CNS has not properly learned how to keep the brain from being too active at night.

This is interesting to note because children are more prone to being hyperactive than adults.

Power lines.
Children often times have very high energy levels.

Researchers also believe that children have a higher probability of experiencing night terrors if they are concerned or stressed about anything. The other potential factors are shifts in a child’s daily routine or sleep schedule and an insufficient amount of rest at night.

Actions That Parents Can Take

Parents can take the following actions to help cease their child’s night terrors:

  1. Ensure that they are obtaining enough sleep at night and are not feeling too tired throughout the day.
  2. Ensure that your children has a structured and wholesome bedtime routine.
  3. Communicate with them throughout the day and discover if there is anything that is causing them stress or concern. The next thing to do is to help them out with their problems.
  4. If your child is causing a tantrum, ensure that they do not cause harm to themselves.
  5. Refrain from waking your child in the duration of a night terror episode. Simply wait with them until they calm down on their own.
  6. The list of actions from the nightmares section above will also will help you out as well.

4) Methods To Cease Nightmares and Night Terrors As Adults

Nightmares and night terrors do happen in adulthood as well. It is nothing to be embarrassed about. I personally have experienced some very unusual and disturbing nightmares before in the past.

There was one time when I had a nightmare about visiting an abandoned home in the woods searching for clues from a past crime. It looked like an investigation from a crime scene.

Haunted house.

There are certain factors that can potentially provoke nightmares and night terrors in adults. Take a look at this list and check off whether or not these factors apply to you:

  1. Breathing sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. If you possess any breathing issues when you sleep at night, I recommend that you consult medical professional about the issue.
  2. Any illnesses that brings about a fever.
  3. Consuming fried, fatty or spicy foods late at night can provoke nightmares. Even consuming small snacks at night can cause nightmares to occur.
  4. Playing a scary video or computer game at night.
  5. Watching a violent or horror movies in the evening can induce nightmares.
  6. Performing rigorous exercise before going to bed.
  7. Taking any recreational drugs.
  8. Smoking tobacco products before going to bed.
  9. Consuming too much caffeine late in the day.
  10. Consuming alcohol late in the day before going to bed.

Furthermore, in addition to the factors above. These are extra suggestions that you should consider which can help you out:

  • Practice mindfulness techniques to channel and visualize positive thoughts when lying in your bed. There are some people that believe you can affect your dreams simply by letting yourself know what it is that you want to dream about. For example, there are people out there that want to dream about their favorite hobby.
  • Create a dream and nightmare journal. Recording your dream or nightmare experience will not only document the event it will also help make it seem less out of your control.
  • Maintain a cool bedroom temperature. Having a bed or bedroom that is too hot will increase the chances that your sleep will be disrupted.
  • Schedule some time to exercise throughout the day. This can be anything from a walk, a run, and other physical activity.
  • As the same with children, having and maintaining a structured sleep schedule will help out.
  • You may very well be experiencing major problems or shifts in your everyday life. Relationship issues, moving to a new location, career or financial problems, and other disturbing experiences can instigate nightmares. Speak to the people who are close to you, or consult a medical professional if you discover an aspect in your life that is too much to handle.
  • Worry, anxiety, and mental strain can trigger nightmares. If you do feel any strain, there is a portion of this website about relaxation techniques that you will find useful.

Mindfulness banner.

5) Specialist Assistance and Other Suggestions

Adding to the list of advice that is located above, there are a few other potential options that you can consider trying, especially in the event that you have tried the other suggestions and had no success.

Request a referral to a sleep specialist or a designated sleep center

If you discover that your nightmares are negatively affecting the way your daily performance or life, then that is a good indicator that it is time to seek out help from a sleep specialist or clinic if you are fortunate enough to find one that is available.

There is a relevant sleep disorder that exists for nightmares and is called “nightmare disorder”. This sleep disorder may need professional assistance. The doctor may prescribe you medications such as clonidine or prazosin. They can also attempt speaking therapy such as “Imagery Rehearsal Technique”.

In the event that these sleep specialists are not accessible or if you want to learn more, then this best practice guide has an outline for up to date treatments for nightmare disorder.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy is gaining attention as a treatment for those individuals who experience reoccurring nightmares as a portion of possessing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Infantry soldiers on battlefield.

This treatment is located under category of Cognitive Behavorial Therapy (CBT) and requires working alongside a therapist in an attempt to alter your dreams by envisioning them happening in a different form while your are conscious.

It is also believed that this method of treatment can assist those who have frequent bad dreams even without the post-traumatic stress disorder factor. This method is best performed with a specialist, however it can be performed alone.

The primary issue appears not to be if the treatment is effective or not, yet it is so uncomplicated that it seems absurd that a sleep disorder that is so powerful can be controlled rather easily.

These are the three simple steps to attempting imagery rehearsal therapy on your own:

  1. Record an overview of the reoccurring dream or the most current nightmare that you have experienced.
  2. Brainstorm a method to alter the nightmare so that it will be less menacing. You should use your senses to figure out a way to go about this.
  3. Schedule some time everyday envisioning your refined version of the nightmare.

This treatment method is so simple that it is almost mocking the powers that you have over your nightmares. Yet, this method has proven to be very effective so it is worth an attempt to do so.

Lucid Dreaming and Welcoming Your Nightmares

There are some accounts the lucid dreaming treatment can be a successful method to cease nightmares. An excellent example that can found here in this study that was conducted by McGill University In Canada.

The notion is that you instruct yourself how to be aware that you are in the duration of a nightmare or a dream and that you can either adjust it or come back to a state of consciousness.

If this idea has peaked your interest, then even beyond that idea is the notion that you are actually welcoming your nightmares via lucid dreaming and utilizing them as an implement to further your psychological or spiritual growth.

This video explains this concept in a very compelling and intriguing manner.

Positives – Link Between Nightmares and Creativity

While this idea may not impart you with a lot of comfort. An intriguing theory suggests that there is a positive thing about nightmares.

A number of researchers believe that there can potentially be a link between your dreams and how creative a person is. There was a study conducted from the Dream Laboratory at the Hoptial du Sacre-Coeur de Montreal, that was released in a sleep medicine journal that involved a group of 28 people.

Some of the subjects experienced regular nightmares and they were compared to the subjects who did not experience any nightmares or at least they did not report have anything.

The researchers utilized word associations techniques before and after the subjects went to sleep. They came to the conclusion that the people who had the nightmares displays qualities that correlate to creativity.

Watercolor painting of winter scenery.
Speaking of creativity. This watercolor painting was created by my sister.

“NM sufferers may access broader than normal emotional semantic networks in the wake state, a difference that may lead this group being perceived as more creative”.

As in the majority of cases, it is not fully known whether or not more emotionally sensitive and creative people are inclined to have more nightmares or if nightmares help promote a higher level of creativity in a person.

Nevertheless, it can provide you some comfort in knowing that having nightmares can be an indicator that you possess a higher level of creativity in your mind.

Who would have thought that something frightening in your mind can potentially help you become more creative! Go figure!

What Are Your Thoughts?

Nightmares and night terrors are something that we all know about. Often times, we do not think about how they are linked to our everyday lives. As you can see, there are a number of different factors that affect how nightmares and night terrors can turn out.

For me, this has been one of my favorite sleep disorders to learn more about. The notion of lucid dreaming and controlling one’s dreams/nightmares was one that I found to be very intriguing.

What are your thoughts?

Do you have any interesting nightmare or night terror stories?

Please respond in the comments section below.

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10 Comments on “Nightmare vs Night Terror – Do You Experience Scary Moments at Night?”

  1. Hello Cathy,

    That is great that you have discovered that stress is causing you to experience nightmares. Subliminal messaging at night is a technique that I have never heard of. As of right now, I do not have any experience with this method. However, I do have experience with meditation and mindfulness techniques. Both of these techniques have helped me calmed down after stressful moments. They have also helped me relax enough to finally fall asleep. I do have some information on mindfulness in my article about relaxation techniques 5 Relaxation Techniques For Sleep: Quieting Your Overactive Mind. Please stay tuned, I will expand upon mindfulness techniques in the future.

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  2. Hello David,

    Yes, taking a long time going back to sleep after having a nightmare is very normal. Nightmares and night terrors can sometimes be a very intense. This can cause your brain to kick into high gear and being in this high active mode can make going to sleep much more difficult. That is excellent that you meditate. That is one of the best techniques to help you relax before going to sleep. You have the right idea, mediation is much better than relying on sleeping pills. If you want to know more about relaxation techniques for sleep. Take a moment to read this article.

    5 Relaxation Techniques For Sleep: Quieting Your Overactive Mind

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  3. Hello Fiona,

    Anytime and you make a valid statement. Indeed, lucid dreaming is a state that is somewhat hard to reach due to the fact that one has to teach themselves either how to adjust or return to a state of consciousness. This is difficult thing to do because when you are asleep. The brain puts measures in place to ensure that you do not wake up from that state. In your son’s case, it could very well be that he is experiencing night terrors especially if you notice other signs of distress while your son is asleep.

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  4. Hello Pardeap,

    Yes, suffering from insomnia is normal. This sleep disorder affects a good number of people. That is a good thing that you do not take sleeping pills that often. Taking them too often can lead to other unfavorable side effects. That is interesting that taking melatonin triggers you to have those types of dreams. At the same time, melatonin does affect everybody differently. I agree these types of dreams can seem so real because the subconscious portion of the brain projects dreams in a way that you are most times experiencing it from a first person perspective. If you want to learn more about insomnia, I have written an article about insomnia.

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  5. Hello Jessica,

    Your welcome and I agree night terrors can be a frightening experience. That is great that you will consider the tips in this post. They will help you out if your children experience nightmares or night terrors in the future. 

    Best regards,
    Kenny Tang

  6. I have experienced nightmares off and on throughout my life. In my case, I have realized that nightmares usually happen now when I am stressed. If I go to bed stressed or upset, I will almost be guaranteed at least one nightmare through the night. I have started using subliminal messaging at night with some success. Have you had any experience using this method yourself? Mindfulness techniques are intriguing. Have you used this method? Do you have more information on this technique?

  7. When I was younger, if I woke up in the middle of the night after a nightmare. It took me ages to fall asleep again. If it happens now, I found that by “meditating in bed” and practicing the “Loving Kindness” technique that it would help me to fall asleep again in a short period of time. I know that it is not strictly meditating, yet this approach works for me. In my opinion, this is way better than taking a sleeping pill, which would have negative side effects.

  8. Lucid dreaming does sound intriguing. I cannot imagine that it would be easy to be able to achieve that state. Thank you for outlining the differences between nightmares and night terrors. My son has sat upright calling out, but lays back down pretty quickly which now makes me think that he is getting night terrors. I will try to implement some of your suggestions to help manage it. 

  9. This is an interesting post/topic.  I suffer from insomnia. I have to take a sleeping pill once in a while. I try not to take it frequently. I do take melatonin. That induces some scary and creative dreams. They seem so life like, yet they are so dramatic. It is like nothing I have seen in real life. Since I have been taking it for a while, I am now accustomed to the nightmares. Looking forward to reading your articles on insomnia.

  10. I think the most scary part is the night terrors because you do not know what is going on. I am sure I have experienced them before from the state of my bed. I have been sleeping a lot better, but I have four kids so I am glad for the information in case something starts to happen with them. Thanks for the information.

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