Nightmare vs night terror: What’s the difference, how do I stop it?

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Nightmare or night terror?

A couple of differences between the two include remembering the terror or nightmare and when it happens during your REM cycle, according to Dr. Srinivasan Devanathan with Parkview Health in a blog post.

Night terrors are the more extreme of the two. People usually can’t remember them. Night terrors can be triggered by stress, family history, and even medications.

If you do have night terrors, starting a sleep diary can be helpful, said Dr. Devanathan. This can help implement a scheduled awakening method.

“This method involves a gentle awakening initiated 15-30 before a night terror event would typically occur. You want to wake the child just slightly, perhaps by tapping him or her on the shoulder or a small nudge to encourage them to change positions. This alters the slow-wave structure in the brain and lessens the chance the individual will experience a night terror. You need to apply the method for several weeks to see [the] best results,” said Dr. Devanathan.

On the flip side, sometimes you can remember nightmares. These are also triggered by similar occurrences as night terrors.

Dr. Devanathan gives three techniques to help process nightmares:

  • Dream rehearsal imagery – Ask the child to draw a picture of their bad dream and then take it and crumple it and throw it away. Ask them to think about the bad event and give it a silly or happy ending. Maybe the monster ends up going for ice cream or he just wanted a hug. Come up with an alternative ending together.
  • Systematic desensitization – With this process, you work with the child (or adult) to go from a very fearful initial process to a soothing process. You walk through the dream and address the sources of fear in an effort to switch them into sources of comfort. If, for example, they saw a barking dog, you then ask them to picture walking up to the dog, petting the dog, then the dog licking them, etc. Use familiar, comfortable scenarios.
  • Relaxation strategies – These techniques include deep breathing and guided meditation. It can be used in general or with specific dreams. Maybe they visualize the thing that prompted fear, and then take some deep breaths and visualize something less intimidating. There are a number of resources online for guided relaxation exercises to promote healthy sleep.

“Consider seeing a Sleep Medicine professional if nightmares begin disrupting the sleep cycle, creating fatigue during the day or happening at a high frequency,” said Dr. Devanthan.

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