Why Do People Scream In Their Sleep?

Screaming in sleep, also known scientifically as “night terrors” or “sleep terrors,” is a type of sleep disorder classified under the category of parasomnias. These parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related disorders that can include abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions, and dreams. Night terrors are characterized by intense, often inarticulate screaming, fear, and flailing while still asleep. They are most common in children, but adults can experience them as well. The causes can range from stress and sleep deprivation to more complex neurological factors.

Understanding Sleep Terrors

Sleep terrors differ from nightmares in their intensity and in the stage of sleep in which they occur. Night terrors usually happen during non-REM sleep, notably during the first few hours of the night in a phase known as slow-wave or deep sleep. During these episodes, the person experiencing the terror might seem awake, their eyes may be open, but they are not fully conscious and typically do not recall the incident the next day.

The Physiology of Sleep Terrors

Understanding night terrors requires a basic knowledge of sleep physiology. Sleep is divided into two main types: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep includes three stages. The third stage, also known as N3 or deep sleep, is when sleep terrors predominantly occur.

During deep sleep, the brain waves slow down considerably, and it becomes harder for someone to wake up. This stage is essential for restorative functions of the body. However, if an arousal occurs due to any number of factors such as external noises, stress, or even an overfull bladder, the subconscious mind might react with a night terror.

Factors Influencing Sleep Terrors

There are numerous factors that can promote the occurrence of sleep terrors. These range from genetic disposition to environmental stressors:

Genetic Factors: There seems to be a familial tendency for night terrors, suggesting a potential genetic link.
Stress and Anxiety: High stress levels and anxiety can disrupt sleep and may contribute to the occurrence of sleep terrors.
Sleep Deprivation: Not getting enough sleep can make an individual more susceptible to sleep disorders, including night terrors.
Medications: Some types of medications, especially those that affect the central nervous system, can be associated with night terrors.
Substance Abuse: Substance abuse and withdrawal symptoms can lead to disturbances in sleep architecture that could trigger parasomnias.
Other Sleep Disorders: Conditions such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or insomnia can exacerbate the risk of sleep terrors.

Finding the Underlying Causes

To provide proper management, identifying any underlying causes of sleep terrors is crucial. Some people may benefit from keeping a sleep diary to notice patterns or triggers associated with their night terrors. Seeking professional help might uncover other sleep disorders or mental health conditions that could be contributing to the problem.

Dealing with Stress and Anxiety

Due to the connection between stress, anxiety, and sleep disturbances, strategies to manage stress can be beneficial. This could involve relaxation techniques before bed such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation. Ensuring a routine that promotes winding down in the evening and creates a sleep-conducive environment is also crucial.

Improving Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and practices that are conducive to sleeping well on a regular basis. Good sleep hygiene could reduce the frequency of night terrors:

– Keeping a consistent sleep schedule.
– Creating a comfortable sleep environment — dark, cool, and quiet.
– Limiting screen time before bed.
– Avoiding caffeine or heavy meals close to bedtime.
– Establishing a relaxing bedtime routine.

Mental Health and Medication Management

If mental health conditions like anxiety are present, treating those conditions can help alleviate night terrors. In some instances, medications may be adjusted or changed to ensure they are not contributing to the episodes.

When to Seek Professional Help

Although night terrors are more common in children and usually outgrown by adolescence, adult-onset sleep terrors can sometimes be a cause for concern. It’s advisable to seek professional help if:

– The sleep terrors are causing significant distress or impairment.
– There is potential for self-injury or injury to others.
– The episodes persist regularly beyond childhood.
– There is a sudden onset in adulthood without an apparent cause.

A healthcare provider might suggest a referral to a sleep specialist, who can conduct a sleep study, known as a polysomnogram, to get an in-depth look at what happens during sleep. This analysis could help rule out other sleep disorders and find a tailored treatment approach.

Behavioral Strategies and Treatments

Behavioral interventions like imagery rehearsal therapy, where individuals visualize a positive outcome of the disrupted sleep, can be helpful. Scheduled awakenings — waking up 15 to 30 minutes before the expected time of a sleep terror — can prevent occurrences in some people.

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Finishing Thoughts

Screaming in sleep due to night terrors can be unsettling both for the individual experiencing it and others in the household. Understanding that this phenomenon often stems from a mix of genetic, psychological, and physiological factors can be the first step toward management. While many children outgrow sleep terrors without treatment, persistent or adult-onset cases deserve professional attention. Good sleep hygiene, management of stress and anxiety, and professional therapy can significantly improve quality of sleep and reduce the occurrence of these alarming nocturnal episodes. If you or someone you know is struggling with sleep terrors, remember that help is available, and interventions can significantly improve this condition.


  • Ashton Roberts

    I love learning and sharing everything about sleep. I am one of the energetic editors here at GoodSleepHub, where I talk about how to get a better night's sleep. When I'm not writing, I'm probably walking my dog Luna or trying out new sleeping gadgets. My goal is to help you sleep easier and better. Join me, and let's find simple ways to enjoy great sleep every night!

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