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What’s the Difference Between Nightmares and Night Terrors?

by Bill Welles

We all dream, but sometimes they’re the furthest thing from sweet. Dreams can be the exact opposite—startling, distressing, and paralyzing. Sometimes we are unpleasantly awoken so quickly that we barely have enough time to catch our breath, let alone decipher whether it was a nightmare or a night terror. Knowing the difference between nightmares and night terrors can go a long way to improving your sleep.  


Nightmares typically occur during the deepest point of sleep— REM sleep. These dreams are the ones you might experience with vivid or lifelike images and explicit, unsettling content. Nightmares that occur during REM sleep often take place late at night or during the wee hours of the morning when our brains reach that deep stage of the sleep cycle. Nightmares are very common amongst children and adults alike and not typically a cause for concern; although, increased levels of stress and anxiousness can intensify the frequency of nightmares. 

Nightmares can be recalled easier than night terrors. You can awake suddenly and have a clear recollection of a bad dream. The dreamer will wake up abruptly and can often describe the entire dream in concise detail. These are the ones the kiddos race into their parents’ room to tell them about in the middle of the night. Children want to tell their parents about a nightmare to gain reassurance that it was just in their head and not a real experience. They can be frightened or upset, but once they squish in-between mom and dad in bed, they fall right back asleep.  

Night Terrors 

However, night terrors tend to occur earlier in the night, before one would reach REM sleep. Someone experiencing a night terror might wake up and shout, sleepwalk, or appear disheveled and anxious for several minutes before falling back asleep. Night terrors induce panic, which is why these frantic reactions or thrashing around in bed may occur. Once they wake up in the morning, they will have a vague memory of what occurred during the dream and more times than not, no memory at all. Night terrors are much more common in kids, which is why there is a higher percentage of children who sleepwalk compared to adults. Occasional night terrors will typically balance out and reduce with age; whereas, nightmares can have a lasting effect at any age. 

Night terrors aren’t quite as common as nightmares, and in contrast to nightmares, a person experiencing a terror will remain asleep even if it appears they are fully awake. In many cases, night terrors are a common side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be difficult to wake a person from a night terror, so it’s best to wait it out until they wake up on their own.  As distressing as it might appear, night terrors do not cause the dreamer any real harm. 

If you are losing sleep or feeling nervous throughout the day because of sleep terrors, or frightening nightmares are keeping you awake for several weeks in a row, consider asking your doctor. Whether you remember the dreams or not, a disrupted sleep cycle can negatively affect mood and energy levels during the day. 

If you don’t experience nightmares too often but you think a new mattress might improve your sleep quality, give us a call or stop by our store to shop our entire collection of mattresses and sleep accessories. A good night’s sleep is the beginning of a good day and a healthy life. Forget counting sheep—visit us today and you’ll be catching plenty of zzz’s in no time.