Sleep Terrors

Sleep terrors* are sudden episodes of terror during sleep. Sleep terrors differ from confusional arousals in that they are usually triggered by a frightening image. The episode begins with a loud shriek or a scream and s accompanied by a racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, flushed skin, sweating and dilated pupils.

The person suffering sleep terrors may act agitated or panicky for no apparent reason. They may sit up in bed and be unresponsive to hearing their name or to other stimuli like a touch or someone turning on the lights. Upon waking they are confused and disoriented, and usually do not recall the content of their dreams. People may attempt to jump out of bed and run away or to fight violently during an episode of sleep terrors. Serious injuries or death may result.

Children may begin experiencing sleep terrors between the ages of 4-12 years. Episodes tend to diminish with age, as with sleepwalking. In some cases the sleep terrors emerge during or continue into adulthood. A large number of adults with sleep terrors have a history or current diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety or depression.

* Also know as: Night terrors, pavor nocturnus

Potential forensic implications:

  • assault
  • fall risk
  • mistaken suicide
  • murder

Case studies: