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What Is The Difference Between Nightmares, Night Terrors & Which One Is Worse?

Everyone has bad dreams. Nightmares are scary movies playing with vivid and disturbing content. It typically wakes you up in the middle of the night like something dreadful. When you or your kid have a haunting, distressing and worse dream, it is often confusing to distinguish between a nightmare or a night terror.

What Is The Difference Between Nightmares, Night Terrors?

What Is The Difference Between Nightmares, Night Terrors & Which One Is Worse?

Although nightmares and night terror both cause sleep disorder yet knowing the difference can help you discover possible remedies to improve sleep.

Nightmares are yet another dreams with unconvincing story ending which occurs most prominently during REM sleep. REM sleep pattern usually occurs later at night or early morning hours because this is the time when the brain reaches that specific portion of the sleep pattern. However, on the other hand, night terrors usually occur in the non-REM sleep cycle (stage 3 sleep) which happens in the earlier part of the night.

Nightmares can be remembered, and you can recall what dream you had when you wake up. Although you don’t remember every detail, you can realize that you had something vivid. But when it comes to sleep terrors, you completely have no idea what it was rather a vague memory of the dream.

When a child encounters a night terror, he or she is completely unaware of the parent in the room. With nightmares, although the child is in a state of confusion, they will seek the help of the parent to help them to get out of their fears.4, 5

Two sleep conditions fall under the bad dream category. They are nightmare and night terror (also referred to as sleep terror). There are few things that differentiate the nightmare from a night terror.

Let us see what is the phenomenon behind nightmares and night terror?

What Is A Nightmare?

Anxiety and depression can cause adult nightmares. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common reasons for the occurrence of chronic and recurrent nightmares. A nightmare can be defined as a dream with a vivid and disturbing plot that most often wakes the dreamer from their sleep. Nightmares occur frequently and keep you from getting restful sleep and are considered as a sleep disorder or often referred to as insomnia.

Nightmares can begin early when the child is three years and over. It usually arises during the preschool years when the kid starts getting fears of the dark. Scariness is the commonest factor for nightmare and tends to happen in the second half of the night.1, 2

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are noticeably dissimilar from the common nightmares. They are episodes of screaming, intense fear and whirling while still asleep. Night terrors are invariably associated with parasomnia (a disruptive sleep disorder characterized by undesirable physical or verbal behaviors or experiences).

Sleep terrors usually happen in the non-REM sleep cycle of the night. There are very rare chances that it occurs during naps. It affects approximately 3% of children between the ages of 4 and 12. However, children in the age groups of 5-7 have increased chances of getting night terrors. 3.


If you or your child has a nightmare, you can find ways to get rid of the bad dreams such as avoid watching frightening movies at night, visualizing a positive end to your dream and so on. However, night terrors are worse than nightmares.

With night terrors, there is no awareness of the situation by the individual, so you need to ensure that the environment around the individual is safe, so they don’t hurt themselves when they are thrashing around during the episode.


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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 14, 2019

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