Although it is possible that nightmares are your problem, for many adults, it’s actually sleep apnea that is causing wakeful nights in terror. If you are having trouble waking up regularly in a cold sweat with a sense of panic, you should be evaluated for sleep apnea.

Night Terrors, Nightmares and Possible Causes

young man sleeping in bedNight terrors and nightmares are distinct phenomena that can sometimes be confused. Night terrors are a parasomnia, a certain kind of mental sleep disorder. You may awaken suddenly with a sensation of fear, but no real sense beyond that of why you are waking up.

Nightmares on the other hand, are actually dreams that you experience vividly. You usually remember many of the details, though they may not make sense to you. Even if you experience them, you usually won’t wake up because of them, but you can.

Usually, nightmares can be traced back to specific causes. It’s rare to have nightmares without a clear cause. Eating late at night can cause nightmares because elevated blood sugar at night can increase brain activity. Some medications have been linked to nightmares, including antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and narcotics. And, ironically, medication withdrawal can lead to nightmares–if you take your medication at about the same time each day and wake up with a nightmare at about the same time each night, this may be the cause. Alcohol consumption can also increase nightmares. And, of course, anxiety, stress, and PTSD are all associated with nightmares.

Sleep Apnea, Night Terrors, and Nightmares

But it may be that nightmares are not your primary problem. Sleep apnea causes traumatic stress because your brain is low on oxygen and realizes you are literally being strangled by your own throat. It wakens partly to restore breathing. It also signals your heart to beat harder and faster to increase oxygen supply to the brain. The gasping breath and racing heart can make it easy to confuse this waking up with that cause by a nightmare, or, especially a night terror.

Studies of children have shown that night terrors are associated with sleep apnea, and it’s likely a similar relationship exists in adults.

If you’re waking up with nightmares, you should talk to a doctor or sleep dentist about sleep apnea. For an appointment with a Denver sleep dentist, please call (303) 691-0267 today for an appointment at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado.