You wake up screaming. Your hands are shaking, and you’re gasping for breath. Beads of sweat drip down your face. You look around, and all you can see is shadows of hands and bedroom furniture within routine night darkness.
What on earth just happened? You probably had a night terror.
As the NHS reports, night terrors tend to happen in the earlier stages of sleep, which means the person experiencing them usually can’t recall the bad dream. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re not frightening to witness. While experiencing a night terror, the person might thrash around, scream, cry, and generally act agitated.
Nightmares, on the other hand, take place during the REM stage of sleep. They tend to happen late at night or early in the morning, shortly before we wake up. Commonly we remember dreams and nightmares because our alarms wake us up in the middle of REM sleep. In some ways, nightmares are more unsettling for the person asleep than night terrors, as nightmares can involve reliving past trauma or our worst fears.
We tend to associate night terrors and nightmares with children waking up screaming or recounting terrifying visions of monsters under their beds. But for some, this phenomenon continues into adulthood. Most adults can recall the occasional nightmare. But for those who regularly experience sleep disruptions, it can indicate an underlying problem, such as stress, sleep disorders, or disturbance to mental health.
In my flash fiction story, “Night Terror,” the unnamed protagonist isn’t sure what’s bothering her at night. If she’s experiencing real life torture and terror, then it’s possible to meet a terrible death more than once. If she’s having night terrors, then why does she remember them? Perhaps she’s simply under too much stress, and life is taking a toll on her mental health.
With science knowing so little about what happens to us at night, the possibilities are endless. But in real life and fiction, the good news is that we can always wake up from terrors and nightmares, setting the reset button and continuing on with life as usual.
Or can we?
Kacie Berghoef is the author of The Modern Enneagram and a content creator, writer, and social media manager. Her fiction and poetry were recently featured in in The NW Zine and Realm of Magic Anthology. Her byline appears on websites such as ThoughtCo, The Billfold, and xoJane. When she isn’t writing, Kacie loves all things Enneagram and personality typology and traveling around the world.
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Photo Credit (c) “Night Terrors” by Sarah Miller