The Chilling Dreams Keeping Us Awake at Night

Have you ever found yourself trapped in a twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, unable to move or speak while eerie shadows surround you? Or perhaps you’ve been jolted awake by blood-curdling screams echoing in the dead of night, only to realize it’s all in your head? 

Whether you, your child, a family member, or a friend has ever experienced something like this, you have stepped into the realm of night terrors and sleep paralysis.

While it’s common for children to have irrational fears, like monsters under the bed or ghosts lurking in the closet, fear of sleep itself due to night terrors and sleep paralysis is a genuine concern. These sleep disorders can significantly impact daily life, leaving individuals sleep-deprived and fearful of closing their eyes because they might end up in a haunting dream. 

Navigating the Realm of Sleep Disorders

Parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders characterized by unusual behaviors, movements, or experiences that occur during sleep or its transition stages. 

According to the National Library of Medicine (NIH), parasomnias include sleepwalking, sleep terrors, sleep talking, and sleep paralysis and are behaviors linked to partial awakening. 

Most of the time, parasomnias are more often seen in children and will improve as a child gets older, yet some people struggle with these sleep disorders for their entire life. 

Nightmares vs. Night Terrors & Sleep Paralysis

To fully understand night terrors and sleep paralysis, we need to understand what a nightmare is and how to tell the difference. Keep in mind that there is data on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, but many answers have yet to be found on why many of these sleeping disorders occur. 


Nightmares are intense and unsettling dreams that stir up feelings of anxiety and fear while asleep, often causing someone to awaken abruptly in the middle of the night. Even though nightmares are common, they can be terrifying and can affect a person’s day and sleeping habits. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, nightmares are more commonly experienced during the second half of the night because that is when the most time is spent in REM sleep.

“Nightmares may begin in children between 3 and 6 years old and tend to decrease after the age of 10. During the teen and young adult years, girls appear to have nightmares more often than boys do. Some have them as adults or throughout their lives,” explains the Mayo Clinic

Nightmares can happen due to stress or anxiety, trauma or PTSD, sleep deprivation, medications, and substance misuse. 

Night Terrors

Night terrors, or sleep terrors, stand apart from nightmares because of the physical movement an individual will exhibit during their dream and the REM sleep stage the person is in when the episode occurs. 

Parasomnias can occur during any stage of sleep, but according to the NIH, night terrors occur when the person or child is in a transitional state between sleep and wakefulness.

“The person who has a nightmare wakes up from the dream and may remember details. A person who has a sleep terror remains asleep,” the Mayo Clinic explains. “Children usually don’t remember anything about their sleep terrors in the morning. Adults may recall part of a dream they had during the sleep terrors.”

A person experiencing a sleep terror might

Nightmares are more common than night terrors. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, two percent of adults have night terrors, and six percent of children experience night terrors on a regular basis. Children may have night terrors in their youth, but most of them grow out of it with time. 

If your child is experiencing a night terror, Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests doing the following: 

  1. Comfort your child back to sleep without attempting to wake them. Shaking or shouting may cause the child to become more upset. 
  2. Ensure your child’s safety during night terrors to prevent accidents like falling, running into a wall, or breaking a window. Gently guide them back to bed if they’re wandering. 
  3. Maintaining a consistent bedtime routine, ensuring your child gets enough sleep, and possibly reintroducing regular naps for younger children can minimize the risk of night terrors. 

Sleep Paralysis

During a sleep paralysis episode, the individual is unable to move or speak, and the dream is typically accompanied by a haunting hallucination. Similarly to night terrors, a sleep paralysis episode occurs at a different stage of sleep than a nightmare.

“While the states of sleep and wakefulness are usually clearly defined and distinct, conditions like sleep paralysis can blur these boundaries. Individuals maintain consciousness during episodes, which frequently involve troubling hallucinations and a sensation of suffocation,” explains the Sleep Foundation. 

An effective strategy for coping with sleep paralysis is acknowledging the episode as it occurs. If you become aware of the situation during the episode, attempt to regain control by gently moving your fingers and toes.

For people who frequently have episodes of night terrors or sleep paralysis, if you believe or fear that you’ll have an episode when going to bed, chances are it will happen. Try diverting your thoughts from the sleep disorder when getting ready for bed. If you or your child are consistently having nightmares, episodes of night terrors, or sleep paralysis, and it’s impacting your well-being, schedule an appointment to speak with your doctor. 

This article was originally published in June 2024.

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