Sleep Terror Disorder

Sleep terror disorder primarily occurs for children, but can affect some adults as well. This disorder causes a person to experience symptoms of extreme fear during sleep, and react abruptly while not fully conscious. Sleep terrors generally occur within the first third of sleep, but can also happen during a daytime nap. The patient may return to a deep and restful sleep after the episode and never fully awaken because of it. Once awake, there is not likely to be any recollection of the episode or what may have caused it, such as dreams or nightmares.

Symptoms of Sleep Terror Disorder

Sleep Terror Disorder causes symptoms which are similar to those experienced when subject to an extremely fearful situation. Patients may experience jolting motions, screaming, crying, change in facial expression, rapid heartbeat, sweating or hyperventilation. It will likely be extremely difficult to awaken a person during his or her sleep terrors, and if attempts are made, the patient can become more fearful or even violent. This disorder can be dangerous in other ways as well, as the person may be prone to jumping out of bed, running or experiencing the need to flee from something. This could lead to bodily harm or other accidents. Symptoms of sleep terror disorder are as follows:

  • Abrupt awakening from sleep that is recurrent and accompanied by fearful reactions, such as a scream or other reaction of panic
  • Physical signs of intense fear, such as sweating or rapid heartbeat
  • Not responsive to comfort from other people
  • No recollection of the episode or of any dreams that may have led to it

Causes of Sleep Terror Disorder

The exact cause of sleep terror disorder is not known. Research studies have provided several theories that may apply on an individual basis. Some children or adults who are under extreme psychological stress or have experienced sleep deprivation may be more prone to this disorder. High fever may lead to sleep terrors, as can certain medications, prescription or otherwise. Other research suggests that when a child's central nervous system hasn't yet reached full development, there may be a correlation between this and the development of sleep terror disorder.

Diagnosis of Sleep Terror Disorder

When sleep terror disorder begins to interfere with the safety of the patient, or interrupts normal daily functioning, a professional may need to conduct an evaluation for the purpose of diagnosis. There are no specific tests that can help to diagnose this disorder, so a psychologist or psychiatrist will generally need to make a decision based upon reports and descriptions from the patient and/or family members who witness symptoms of the disorder. Since this condition can easily be confused with nightmare disorder, the professional evaluation can lead to the proper diagnosis and suggestions for treatment.

Treatment for Sleep Terror Disorder

There are some medications that may be recommended for adults who are experiencing sleep terror disorder. These medications, however, may not be appropriate for children, and adults may wish to evaluate their situation and decide whether drug intervention is necessary or safe. Hypnotic drugs, such as Valium, may be useful in suppressing the nervous system, therefore leading to fewer episodes of panic during sleep. If medication is not preferred, psychotherapy may help to uncover triggering events or feelings which may lead to symptoms. If sleep terror disorder is not otherwise affecting the waking life of the patient, a simple room rearrangement may help to deter any physical harm from leaping from bed or frantically moving about the room. Often, this disorder in children will subside once they reach adolescence.