Nightmares VS Night terrors

Ephialtes - (noun) Greek. A nightmare; the demon incubus said to cause terrors.

Night terrors have been in my life for as long as I can remember, and for a long time were very hard to control. They meant that I was too scared to sleep at night, and left me feeling even more drained and exhausted the next morning. They differ slightly from nightmares, but do you know how?

I'm hoping this post can shed some light on the topic. All websites for information will be credited.

Nightmare - Olesya Yemets

My experience:

I still have memories to this day, of when I was 5 or 6 years old and waking from nightmares; traipsing downstairs to find my Mum, her spreading my blanket across the living floor in-front of the TV for me to lay on, and putting Jungle Book in the video player for comfort.

My nightmares always consisted of bad things happening to my Grandparents - two of my most cherished people. Fires in their house, and me having to choose which I could save. Floods. Death. Losing them. Hand on heart, my biggest fear. And that's how they got to me.

They were never overly consistent, or not that I can remember. But they sure did leave a permanent mark.

It wasn't until my teens, and the height of my depression, that the terrors began.

At first I didn't understand them. I would wake up, panting, crying, hyperventilating, drenched in sweat, and feel so, so confused.

The fright of the feeling that came from waking up in such a daze eventually led me to insomnia. I got by, for the best part of a year, with minimal sleep. I drove myself to exhaustion because I didn't understand what was going on in my mind, and I rarely ever remembered what the dreams were about.

woman sleeping on bed under blankets photo - Gregory Pappas

During the terrors, my sister would sometimes hear me, and come in to sooth me back to sleep. She never knew what they were, and I could often wake up, oblivious that they'd ever happened. But I learnt that no matter how long I slept, they would still wiggle their way in.

I went to my GP who referred me to a sleep counsellor. We worked through booklets of how to relax before bed, the dos and don'ts of a good nights sleep, and soothing exercises. And they did sort-of work for a while..

Well, until they didn't anymore.

My therapist decided to write to my GP and suggested that my antidepressants be changed to incorporate one with sedation properties - mirtazapine.

It's been around 3 years since then, and I don't tend to have any night terrors - in fact I rarely experience dreams of any sort now. I do sometimes still struggle to sleep, but I try to make a conscious effort to adjust my schedule and accommodate some of the methods I learnt within the sleep therapy.

There is never just one straightforward solution, unfortunately.

What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

Now, for those of you who are unaware, there is are some slight differences between the two:

  • Nightmare :

  • A frightening or unpleasant dream often remembered in the morning.

  • Can cause you to wake from your slumber.

  • Common in 3-6 years old.

  • Night terror :

  • Episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors often are paired with sleepwalking

  • Don't often cause you to wake up.

  • Common in 3-8 years old.

What're the causes?

greyscale photo of kid lying on bed - Annie Spratt

Nightmares and night terrors are often associated with high stress and anxiety levels, being overtired, feeling poorly, and taking certain medications. .

However, night-terrors are known to be passed along the family tree, in partnership with sleep walking.

Other triggers are:

  • Migraines

  • Things likely to wake you up from a deep sleep; loud noises, needing the toilet, excitement.

  • Mental health conditions (e.g. depression, anxiety)

  • Medication (e.g. antidepressants)

How to react:

The ways in which to respond to night terrors VS nightmares probably provide the largest differences between the two.

When it comes to nightmares, talking about what happened and receiving reassurance, deciphering what the trigger could've been, and rewriting the ending are the most soothing steps. Exercising also helps to eliminate stress and subsequently reduces chance of recurring.

Night-terrors are best dealt with when left to endure the episode. Intervening and trying to wake up the person having the attack - if successful - may only cause upset and confusion; this which can then cause physical lashing out and potential harm to all parties involved.


Woman in white sweater holding black round frame photo - Priscilla Du Preez

Incorporate relaxation time into your bedtime routine. This can be having a warm bath or shower, listening to soothing music or hypnosis tracks, colouring in, or reading a book.

  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before bedtime.

  • Try a warm glass of milk before bed - it contains tryptophan which is a natural sleep inducer.

  • If the terrors happen at a specific time every night, break your sleep pattern and set an alarm to wake up just before in order to change the cycle.

  • Healthy eating and exercise - going to bed hungry can also be distracting, so perhaps try a light bite before bed.

  • Seek help through your GP or a therapist.

Website sources:

To finish...

I hope this can be of help to any persons dealing with, or experiencing, night terrors VS nightmares. Though common, sometimes it can be soothing to hear someones in-depth experiences, rather than just a brief overview from a medical site.

Should you want to ask any questions, have an outside opinion, or just talk to someone, please don't be afraid to leave a comment, or write to me using the contact box at the foot of the page.

Until next time,

Abby x


Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I'm Abby..

  • a receptionist 

  • a makeup and beauty addict 

  • a fabulous car DJ 

  • a bad luck charm

  • a chronic over-sharer  

  • a mental health advocate 

  • a lover of old and rare words 

  • a girl with a lot of love to give and a lot of stories to tell

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