Night Terrors vs. Nightmares: How They Differ and Which Is More Serious?

Sleep disturbances can be incredibly disruptive to our well-being, leaving us feeling tired, anxious, and irritable during the day. Two of the most common types of sleep disturbances are nightmares and night terrors. While they may sound similar, these conditions are actually quite different. We’ll explore the key differences between nightmares vs night terrors, and how you can identify and manage each one.

Night Terrors Vs Nightmares

What is a Night Terror?

Night terror is a sleep disorder that can happen during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. This condition is more common in children and may last for a few minutes.

During a night terror episode, a person may seem like they are waking up, but they are not completely conscious and may feel disoriented or confused.

The individual may cry, scream, or move their body erratically and could be hard to console or comfort.
Night terrors can be distressing not just for the person experiencing them but also for anyone who is present during the episode.

What is a Nightmare?

Nightmares are dreams that can be unsettling, frightening, or anxiety-inducing, leading a person to wake up feeling scared, anxious, or upset.

They typically occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, which is the stage when the most vivid and emotional dreams happen.

Nightmares are often intense and detailed, involving scenarios that reflect a person’s deepest fears, insecurities, or experiences.

Nightmares can be triggered by various factors, such as stress, anxiety, trauma, and certain medications.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common causes of recurrent nightmares, and it often affects people who have experienced a traumatic event.

Stress and anxiety can also lead to nightmares, as the body produces more cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with sleep and cause vivid dreams.

Certain medications, such as antidepressants, blood pressure drugs, and narcotics, can also cause nightmares as a side effect.

Are Night Terrors and Nightmares the Same? Differences Between Nightmares and Night Terrors

While nightmares and night terrors share some similarities, they also have important differences.

Understanding these differences can help people identify what they are experiencing and seek appropriate treatment.

Let’s explore the characteristics of nightmares vs night terrors and highlight the key ways in which they differ.

Are Night Terrors and Nightmares the Same

Common causes

The causes of each condition are different.

While nightmares can result from various factors, including stress, anxiety, medication side effects, traumatic experiences, and depression, night terrors are commonly caused by sleep deprivation or irregular sleep patterns.

Degree of fear

The degree of fear experienced during the episodes is another distinguishing factor.

While nightmares can be scary and distressing, the fear is usually less intense than that experienced during a night terror, which can be accompanied by extreme panic, screaming, and intense fear, with a sense of danger.

Sleep phase

Sleep phase is also a differentiating factor.

Nightmares usually occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, while night terrors occur during deep non-REM sleep.

Content of the dreams

The content of the dreams is another difference between the two.

Nightmares often involve real-life events, fears, or anxieties, while night terrors are usually not related to a specific event or experience.


Nightmares and night terrors have distinct characteristics in terms of movement, timing, and waking experience.
Typically, nightmares do not involve physical activity, while night terrors may involve movements such as thrashing or sitting up.


In terms of timing, nightmares usually occur later in the sleep cycle, and the person may wake up immediately after the dream.

Night terrors, on the other hand, usually occur in the first few hours of sleep.


The way in which a person wakes up following a nightmare or night terror is also different.

After experiencing a nightmare, a person may feel scared or anxious, but they can typically calm down and go back to sleep. The experience of a nightmare is often remembered and can be recalled in the morning.

In contrast, when a person experiences a night terror, they may not fully wake up, and they may have no recollection of the event the following morning.

This can be a confusing and disorienting experience for the person, as they may have no understanding of why they feel so unsettled.

Understanding the differences between nightmares vs night terrors is crucial in identifying and managing these sleep disturbances.

Difference Between Nightmares And Night Terrors

Which is more serious: nightmares or night terrors?

Assessing which type of sleep disturbance is more severe, nightmares or night terrors, can be challenging as they differ in intensity and effects on the person.

Nightmares are typically less severe than night terrors as they usually involve less intense fear and are commonly related to real-life events or anxieties.

Although nightmares can be distressing, they do not tend to result in significant physical activity or waking up in a state of panic.

On the other hand, night terrors can be more severe, resulting in intense fear, panic, and physical movements such as thrashing or sitting up.

Night terrors can be so severe that a person may seem confused, not fully wake up, or may not remember the event the following morning.

This can significantly impact a person’s sleep quality and daily life.

Overall, while both nightmares and night terrors can be concerning, night terrors can be more severe and have a greater impact on a person’s well-being.

In summary, nightmares and night terrors are two types of sleep disturbances that differ in their causes, degree of fear, sleep phase, content, movement, timing, and waking experience.

While nightmares are often related to real-life events or anxieties and can be distressing, night terrors can cause intense fear, panic, and physical movements.

Night terrors can have a more significant impact on an individual’s sleep quality and daily functioning than nightmares.

If you experience either of these sleep disturbances, seeking professional support is recommended, particularly if they are causing significant disruptions to your sleep or daily life.

A healthcare provider can help determine the underlying cause of your nightmares or night terrors and suggest appropriate treatment options.

Treatment options for sleep disturbances such as nightmares and night terrors may include behavioral therapy, medication, improving sleep hygiene, and addressing underlying medical conditions.

Therefore, getting professional support for nightmares and night terrors is essential to improve your sleep quality and overall well-being.