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Night terrors are episodes in which people typically awaken with a scream and sit bolt upright in bed as if they had just had a nightmare. Unlike in a nightmare, however, the person frequently cannot remember anything except being afraid. Researchers have found that night terrors occur during non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is sleep characterized by little or no dreaming activity. They most often occur in children, but may also affect adults. Although the precise cause is unknown, the incidence of night terrors can be seen in a number of adults who appear to be especially prone to them.
This phenomenon has been extensively studied since the 1800s. Even though night terrors more often occur in young children, adults are not immune. There are factors common to adults who suffer from night terrors. It is suggested that stress, lack of sleep, and/or the prolific use of drugs or alcohol are factors. However, nothing has been proven conclusively.
In studies of both children and adults, mild to violent nervous bodily reactions occur before the dreamer awakens from a night terror. Heart and respiratory rates double in seconds, and incidents of muscle twitching, violent physical movements, hitting, yelling, walking out of the bedroom and even the house in an attempt to fight off and escape from attackers have all been documented.
Prior studies of night terrors produced some interesting findings. For instance, in 1899, the British Medical Journal published a study of thirty people who suffered from night terrors. Seventeen of the thirty people suffered from the onset of early heart disease. In the 1960s, a group of twenty-three children, all of whom suffered from night terrors, had their adenoids removed. Twenty-two of these children reported an immediate cessation to the terrors. Studies on adults who suffered from night terrors, known to psychologists back in the 1960s as a “disorder of arousal,” did not find any correlated personality traits. Persons intimately involved in the personal lives of some of those afflicted with night terrors, however, described them as being “tightly wound” individuals. Current psychology might classify such individuals as having Type A personalities.