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What Causes Night Terrors in Adults?

By Matt Brady
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The few adults who experience night terrors often struggle with other sleep disorders, substance abuse, mental conditions, and stress. A family history of sleep disorders can also increase one's chance of developing night terrors. In children, night terrors often dissipate with age. In adults, however, the potential causes of night terrors may not go away without seeking a diagnosis and treatment. Night terrors in adults are also far more dangerous and potentially violent than with children, so it's important to see a specialist as soon as one becomes aware of the issue.

Genetics seem to be a significant cause of night terrors in adults. An individual with a family history of sleep disorders is more likely to experience night terrors than other adults. Researchers aren't quite sure what genes are responsible for the hereditary nature of this problem, but studies have indeed shown that sleep disorders are often shared among members of a family.

Night terrors are also often caused by mental conditions, particularly bipolar disorder. The correlation isn't entirely understood. Medication taken for bipolar disorder can sometimes help diminish night terrors.

Depression is another major cause of night terrors in adults, especially when compounded by anxiety. People dealing with extreme stress are often known to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, sweating, and short of breath. Such episodes are often called panic attacks, but they can mirror all the same symptoms of night terrors. One should see a sleep specialist to find out whether or not a panic attack should be treated as a night terror.

Other sleep disorders that cause sleep deprivation may be responsible for inducing night terrors. Disorders that interrupt the sleep cycle are classified under a group of sleep disorders known as parasomnias. Night terrors — one of the parasomnias — may be induced by other parasomnias, such as sleep apnea and sleep paralysis.

Night terrors in adults can also be induced by a less common set of factors, such as migraines, strokes, and seizure disorders. Severe fevers are capable of causing night terrors as well, along with hallucinations and delusional thinking. Head trauma can also cause this problem.

Substance abuse also has been known to cause night terrors. Alcohol abuse, in particular, is a known cause of serial night terrors in adults, and too much caffeine can also elevate the risk in some people. Adults may also experience night terrors as an adverse reaction to medication.

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Discussion Comments

By anon997625 — On Feb 06, 2017

My sister (as a baby) once (I think) had a night terror, we found her crying violently but not awake. We tried to comfort her by holding her but she hadn't woke up. Once she was awake she was crying and wouldn't let us out of her sight. She hadn't endured anything that could have harmed her or scared her. We never knew what could have caused this terror.

By anon357965 — On Dec 08, 2013

I wake up screaming. I generally remember a dream I have just had, lasting only a second or two, which involves seeing someone beside the bed. Or sometimes I lash out physically and don't remember having done so. I don't know what to do. This has been going on intermittently for about two and a half years and is ruining my 23-plus year marriage. The incidents terrify my husband, who feels like he's having a heart attack and is afraid it will kill him.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Aug 16, 2012

What is the connection between nightmares and night terrors? Is one caused by the other?

By gravois — On Aug 16, 2012

Are the causes of night terrors in adults the same as the causes of night terror in children?

My daughter has been having terrible fits in her sleep. I have done a little research into night terrors but almost all of it is focused on adults.

If anyone knows of a good resource on the subject of night terrors in toddler or children that would be really helpful to me. Thanks!

By vigilant — On Aug 15, 2012

How do I know if I am having night terrors? I have been having a lot of trouble sleeping lately and I seem to be thrashing and moving around a lot in my sleep. Is there an easy way to diagnose myself and even better, an easy way to treat myself if it turns out I really do have night terrors?

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