Who hasn’t woken up tangled in sheets, sweating, terrified from a nightmare?  

Whether you’re late for an exam, naked in public, or being chased by anything from a dinosaur to a scary clown, we’ve all been jolted awake, afraid of the monsters in our heads.  

But while nightmares are stressful for the dreamer, night terrors are often more stressful for the observer.  We see our partner or child sit bolt upright in bed, scream, and thrash around with a panicked look in his or her wide open eyes.  Eventually, they’ll drift back into peaceful sleep.  

The kicker?  They don’t remember any of it in the morning.

This week, we’ll cover the 4 differences between nightmares and night terrors, and talk about a treatment for each, by request from listener Margaret Flannery from Michigan.

Difference #1 Sleep Stages
During REM sleep, the brain is as active as when it is awake, and while the jury is still out on the exact function of REM sleep, we do know it’s when dreams (and those chased-by-a-dinosaur nightmares) take place.

Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during NREM stage 3, or slow wave sleep, which is thought to be important for consolidating memories from the day. During slow wave sleep, the brain rests, as evidenced by less blood flow and a slower metabolic rate within the brain. Also, within each wave, a short period occurs where neurons are silent, giving them a break.

This is why, if you wake someone up from a night terror, they are groggy and befuddled. It takes a few moments to transition out of slow wave sleep, get that blood flowing, and get neurons firing like normal again.


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