Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares

Sleep has been a constant subject of psychologists. Sleep is the time our body relaxes and regenerates the lost energy and repair cellular damages. But for psychologists sleep is not only that and it could be proven by the occurrence of night terrors and nightmares. Nightmares and night terrors were indistinguishable until scientists discovered rapid eye movements. But now certain characteristics of the two are identified which allows us to separate the two from each other.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are also known by the names sleep terrors and pavor nocturnes. These were known from ancient times. Night terrors are considered as a parasomnia disorder. Night terrors usually occur during the first few hours of sleep where non-rapid eye movements (NREM) are observable. This period of sleep is known as delta sleep. Therefore, people with more delta sleep activity tend to experience more night terrors. Night terrors can be mistaken for confusional arousal. Usually night terrors begin during the age of 3 to 12 and reduce in the adolescence. Night terrors also occur during the age of 20 to 30.

Unique feature of a night terror is inconsolability. A person may rise with their eyes wide open, with a panicked look upon the face. He may also sweat more than the usual and have elevated heart rate and respiration rate; sometimes twice the normal rate. In some cases, they may show motions like kicking, punching, and fleeing. The person looks as he/she is awake but not. He/she also may not recognize the familiar faces if try to communicate and will often look confused. They may also show sleep walking at times because night terrors and sleep walking are related to parasomnia disorder. Scientists have found a relationship with night terrors and people suffering from mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.


Nightmares are basically bad, unpleasant dreams. The word originated from old English “mare” a mythological demon who was believed to be torturing people during the sleep. A nightmare can have physical causes and psychological causes such as sleeping in uncomfortable positions, stress, and anxiety. There is also a relationship between nightmares and use of opioid drugs. If nightmares occur frequently, one can end up suffering from insomnia because, after a nightmare, it is difficult to get back to sleep.

Nightmares are common in young children and most common in teenagers. Freud and Jung both describe nightmares as re-experiencing painful events from the past. When a person experiences a nightmare, he/she wakes up from the dream unlike in a night terror. This usually occurs when in the deep sleep during the phase where rapid eye movements (REM) occur.

What is the difference between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

• Nightmare is a bad dream but night terror is not a dream but a partial awakening with unusual behaviors.

• Nightmares occur during the REM sleep, but night terrors occur during the N-REM sleep.

• A person wakes up from a nightmare, but not from a night terror. (Although they may have their eyes open)