Disruptions during the night can greatly affect the quality of a person’s sleep, which can make them feel tired even after a night’s rest. Night terrors and sleep paralysis are just some of the disorders that can plague a person’s slumber. Understanding the difference between both, and why they happen can be the first step to determining why these particular sleep issues happen to you. Learn more about the types of parasomnia treatment here.
The Stages of Sleep
To put it simply, sleep disorders are also called parasomnias. They can occur whenever a person enters specific stages of sleep or when a person is about to fall asleep or wake up. In order to understand parasomnias better, one must first understand the different stages of sleep.
The stages of sleep are classified according to the type of brain activity present during each particular stage. If you’ve ever felt tired even after getting a full 8 hours of slumber the night before, it means that you didn’t enter the restorative stage of sleep. Night terrors and sleep paralysis also occur in different stages of the sleep cycles.
The stages of sleep are categorized into two types, composed of four stages in total.
The first type is called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. It is composed of 3 stages namely:
- Stage 1 / N1: This stage is the shortest, and is best described as when a person is dozing off, about to fall into a deeper sleep.
- Stage 2 / N2: During this stage of sleep, the breathing slows down and the body’s temperature lowers. The brain isn’t as active as it was in the previous stage but will still have a bit of activity.
- Stage 3 / N3: This stage is best known as short-wave sleep (SWS) and the body enters a deep sleep. This stage is vital for memory and creativity.
The second type of sleep is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and it is when the amount of brain activity is at its highest during sleep. During REM sleep, a person’s eyes usually move rapidly despite the body being completely at rest.
REM sleep is important for memory, learning, and other cognitive functions. In order for a person to feel well-rested, they must enter REM to make the most of out of sleep’s restorative benefits.
Night terrors, or sleep terrors, are a variety of parasomnia usually classified under arousal disorders. An arousal disorder does not necessarily mean that an individual will immediately wake up, but instead be partially awake from a very deep sleep. The transition from short-wave sleep to almost waking up can cause someone to become very confused, or in the case of night terrors, terrified and disoriented.
An individual experiencing a night terror may experience the following:
- Crying or screaming suddenly
- Sweating profusely
- Appear flushed
- Increase in heart rate
In some cases, people with night terrors may jolt up suddenly and start to scream at something with their eyes open. Despite appearing to be awake, they might not be able to respond normally because they’re not fully awake. If a person is currently having an episode of night terrors, consoling them might be futile or may lead to them becoming more agitated.
It’s important to note night terrors are not the same as nightmares. Whereas night terror episodes are usually forgotten by an individual, nightmares can be vivid and even recurring. This is because night terrors happen in the NREM sleep stage, while nightmares usually occur when a person is in REM sleep.
Night terrors most often happen in children who are aged 4 to 12 years old usually when they’re still in the first 3 to 4 hours of the night. Durations of episodes can vary, and can usually anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes.
Sleep paralysis happens right before someone falls asleep or after they wake up. When the body is in REM sleep, it settles into “atonia” where the muscles are completely relaxed. This is the body’s natural mechanism to prevent us from acting out our dreams and accidentally causing injuries. Sleep paralysis somehow causes atonia to continue even if the person is still aware, which can make them feel paralyzed or unable to move their limbs
Other hallmarks of a sleep paralysis episode are the following:
- Knowing you’re awake but being unable to move or speak
- A feeling that someone or something is watching you nearby
- Having difficulty breathing, or feeling a weight on your chest that’s suffocating
- A general feeling of unease or fear
Because these symptoms happen in the state between being asleep and being awake, they can often be disorienting and may cause intense anxiety in those who suffer from it. Although sleep paralysis episodes can be very stressful, they are usually not life-threatening.
Sleep paralysis can be part of narcolepsy, which is a sleep disorder that is characterized by excessive sleepiness and that can cause someone to fall asleep without them noticing. People who are aged 20 to 30 are the ones who usually experience sleep paralysis.
Episodes of sleep paralysis are usually short, and can last only for a few minutes. An external force such as someone’s voice or touch can usually end an episode of sleep paralysis.
Night Terrors vs Sleep Paralysis: What’s the Difference?
The main difference between night terrors versus sleep paralysis lies in when they occur. As previously mentioned, night terrors can happen when a person is usually in the stages of NREM sleep. Sleep paralysis can only occur when a person has entered the REM sleep cycle.
Another key difference between the two is the fact that night terrors can usually cause a person to scream, cry out, or appear to awaken suddenly. Sleep paralysis is the opposite as it renders a person temporarily immobile.
However, both night terrors and sleep paralysis are considered sleep disorders or parasomnias, and can be caused by insomnia, alcohol intake, or an irregular sleeping schedule.
Parasomnia Treatment and Management
There is no exact parasomnia treatment night terrors or sleep paralysis. But there are a few tips that may help to manage any negative symptoms you may experience with these parasomnias.
- Try to keep your sleeping schedule in order by going to sleep and waking up at the same time.
- As part of parasomnia treatment and management, try to get enough sleep every day.
- Minimize any habits that may lead to insomnia such as gadget use before bed.
- Try to avoid excessive drinking or drug use. Some may feel that these can help as part of parasomnia treatment but using these substances to fall asleep usually leads to poor quality of sleep and may even cause the disorders themselves.
When it comes to parasomnia treatment and dealing with sleep paralysis and night terrors, both are usually harmless conditions. But they can be frightening and lead to anxiety for both those who suffer them and their loved ones. Try the following tips above to reduce the risk and better manage the condition. Of course, it’s best to consult a doctor for any drastic changes.
Learn more about Healthy Sleep here.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.