Parasomnia: ALL Different Types Of Nightmares Explained


🌙 Written by Kai Riverstone, international lucid dreaming expert and teacher. Learn how to lucid dream in 7 days or less.

Today we’re going to look at Parasomnia and all types of NIGHTMARES. We’ll explain how they work, who suffers from them, and how to AVOID all types of nightmares.

When we think about sleep, most of us think of the idyllic, careless rest during the few hours we devote ourselves to.

We would turn off our phones, allowing our heads to sink into the pillow, and letting a hovering-like sensation to carry us into dreamland.

However, for people struggling with parasomnia disorder, sleep is when the real terror begins. Parasomnia is a phenomenon that occurs while falling asleep, during sleep, between sleep stages, or during sleep arousals.

It refers to abnormal things that can happen to people during sleep.

Though typically harmless, in some cases it can be hazardous for the sleepers themselves, and those around them.

Due to their brain and neurological development, parasomnias are more common for kids. But, due to the daily stress, adults may experience them too.

Though brain disorders may be responsible for some parasomnias, medical experts rarely associate parasomnia with brain disorders. It often runs in the family, so there is a genetic factor in multiple cases.

Very often, parasomnias can be caused by loss of the loved one, anxiety, medication, and other sleep disorders, like obstructive sleep apnea.

More specifically, both minor and major disorders are defined as parasomnia disorders. Whatever the case may be, people suffering from any parasomnia shouldn’t be left alone in the nighttime.

Are there different types of nightmares?

There are indeed. The most common TYPES of nightmares are also referred to as parasomnias, and are as follows:

Here are the 9 types of nightmares people can have:

  • Nightmares
  • Night terrors
  • Confusional arousals
  • Rhythmic movement disorder
  • Sleep talking
  • Nocturnal leg cramps
  • Sleep walking
  • Sleep paralysis
  • REM sleep behaviour

We’ll cover EACH type of nightmare below, and explain who gets them, and WHY. 

MINOR parasomnia disorders

Everyone experienced a case of minor parasomnia disorder such as nightmares, night terrors, arousals, or sleep talking, at least once.

Most people don’t even remember having any of them after they wake up.

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What are you afraid of? Why?

Still, though not harmful, minor parasomnia disorders can be frightening for people experiencing them.

1: Nightmares

This REM parasomnia, also known as dream anxiety disorder, emerges when a person has nightmares that are beyond usual, and more frightening and enough to wake them up.

We all experienced nightmares, and some still do, and they’re usually nothing to be worried about. But they can become a disorder if they’re genuinely affecting your life, due to the stressfulness, or lack of sleep.

People experiencing nightmare disorders are reluctant to go to bed because of them and may suffer from insomnia as an after-effect. This can turn into an endless loop, as the lack of sleep can result in much more frequent nightmares.

Certain prescription drugs, like antidepressants, may likewise have nightmares as one of the side effects. A lot of things can cause a nightmare disorder, with stress, anxiety, and sleep apnea being the most common of causes.

Nightmare disorder can also be triggered by the loss of the one, and post-traumatic stress. If you’re experiencing unbearable nightmares, you should talk to your doctor or therapist.

2: Night Terrors

Also known as sleep terrors, these are an NREM parasomnia disorder that happens when you’re switching from the most profound phases of deep-sleep, into REM sleep.

There are significant differences between nightmares and night terrors, though many people aren’t aware of this. Unlike nightmares, which usually have a sequential structure that you can remember, night terrors leave us only with a memory of a terrifying feeling.

Like in many cases of parasomnia disorders, sleep apnea can trigger night terrors, and so can stress, sleep deprivation, depression, and anxiety. Many medical experts and therapists agree that keeping a sleep diary, and healthy sleep hygiene can help reduce your night terrors.

3: Confusional Arousals

We’ve all experienced confusional arousals otherwise known as sleep drunkenness. This parasomnia disorder may occur when you’re suddenly woken up while engaging in NREM stages of sleep.

As a result, you may end up acting strangely, feeling disoriented, or speaking slowly for a short period.

Although specialists don’t know what exactly happens with our brains during slow-wave sleep, it’s thought to help the brain recover from a long day.

While confusional arousals occur when something wakes you up, loud noises can be a risk factor. Sleep apnea can also cause you to wake up due to a pause in breathing. The use of alcoholic beverages might also cause confusional arousals.

Though these are pretty common, and usually not harmful, so they don’t require medical assistance.

4: Rhythmic Movement Disorder

Or RMD should be discerned from a hypnagogic jerk, which is only an involuntary muscle spasm when a person is drifting off to sleep.

Unlike hypnagogic jerk, which happens in transition between wakefulness and sleep, the RMD occurs at sleep onset, or in NREM sleep cycles.

It can include head banging, body rocking, head rolling, or any other repeated movement of large muscle groups, often involving the head and the neck.

Rhythmic movement disorder is most common in small children and usually disappears by the age of four. Still, in rare cases, it can persist into adulthood or can be associated with developmental delay.

5: Sleep-talking

As the name suggests, this parasomnia makes you TALK while sleeping, and it can range from moaning to nonsensical monologues or conversations.

Also known as somniloquy, this phenomenon can occur in any sleep phase – the lighter the sleep phase, the more sense a person makes when sleep-talking.

Even sleep specialists aren’t one hundred percent sure why sleep-talking occurs. They suspect that the part of the brain, which usually keeps us from talking during sleep, “misfires” and triggers a part that allows us to do so.

Certain lifestyle choices like alcohol abuse, stress, or sleep deprivation may contribute, or be a critical factor in why this disorder happens.

Sleep-talking can often happen simultaneously with other sleep disorders, like confusional arousals, sleep apnea, or nightmare disorders.

Though it may sound upsetting to others, sleep-talking isn’t a significant reason for concern. With proper sleep hygiene and healthy sleep habits, somniloquy can be suppressed to a certain point.

6: Nocturnal Leg Cramps

This parasomnia disorder consists of involuntary contractions or spasms of your leg muscles while you’re sleeping.

The pain can be so immense that it can cause a person to wake up. People experience these cramps in their whole leg, but the most common and most notable is the pain in the calves.

These symptoms can last from several seconds up to several hours, and the painful aftermath, in the form of muscle soreness, can last up to a few days.

Anyone is susceptible to these cramps, but it’s shown that women are more prone to this disorder, especially during pregnancy. It has been proven that this disorder intensifies with age, with pain being so intense that people who experienced it seek medical assistance.

MAJOR parasomnia disorders

Major parasomnia disorders can be, in many cases, dangerous for the person experiencing them, as well as their surroundings. With disorders of this kind, it’s generally necessary to seek medical attention, as they include sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, and REM sleep behavior.

These disorders are a little more serious and could have very negative side effects. 

Scary stuff. Ready? 

7: Sleepwalking

Just like confusional arousals, sleepwalking occurs during those partial arousals when a few zones of your brain are conscious, while others aren’t.

This NREM parasomnia, also called somnambulism, usually includes getting up and bumbling around while you’re still sleeping.

When a person sleepwalks, the part of the brain that oversees higher-level capacities, like the cerebrum and cerebral cortex seems to remain disconnected.

What does that mean?

This means that the conduct that sleepwalker exhibits is, in general, entirely fundamental. For example, strolling through the house, or scavenging through a closet.

It’s unclear why precisely individuals do sleepwalk. Some experts believe that it’s a type of disassociation where sleepwalkers rapidly cycle between conditions of being asleep and awake.

In most cases, the episodes of sleepwalking are short; however, in some cases, individuals can experience more extended events that include driving a car.

This can happen due to medications, which appear to affect certain brain areas, enabling an individual to move around more than expected, while staying unconscious. Still, those cases are sporadic, as most sleepwalking episodes are quite innocuous.

Keep in mind that sleepwalkers shouldn’t be roused, especially vigorously, as it may confuse or distress them temporarily. Distressed, they may strike out at anyone close, inflicting injury upon themselves, or the person waking them up.

Sleepwalkers tend to be very suggestible. In other words, a very gentle nudge with a “Hey, why don’t you go back to bed?” might work. It is essential to protect a sleepwalker from themselves.

If you’re suffering from sleepwalking episodes, or you’re conceivably placing yourself or others in risk, you should consult with your primary care physician. They can help you assess the factors that may contribute to your sleepwalking.

Sometimes, specialists endorse medication which lessens the brain’s activity in a manner that may counteract wandering around while sleeping.

8: Sleep Paralysis

Imagine waking up, and suddenly you’re in a horror movie scene, with terrifying images in front of you, and to make it worse – you can’t move. It sounds horrifying, and tragically, for individuals who have sleep paralysis, this may be just another night.

Sleep paralysis involves you not being able to move your body for a couple of minutes while falling asleep or waking up.

Individuals who experienced it often talk about terrifying scenes of something or someone being present in the room with them – usually trying to harm them.

Other symptoms include having difficulty breathing, inability to speak and move, feeling pressure on the chest, and sensations that cause fear.

During REM sleep, your brain relaxers your muscles to the point when you’re more or less rendered immobile.

The brain sends signals to the body that it’s ready for sleep. This process keeps you from acting out your dreams.

However, you can become aware before the REM cycle has finished, still unable to move. Hallucinations like the sleep demon, and paralysis are caused by a disrupted boundary between dream sleep and wakefulness.

Isolated occurrences, though scary, aren’t a noteworthy reason for concern. Most of these episodes end on their own or might stop when someone touches you or speaks to you. But in some cases, the recurring episodes can be linked to narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that involves drowsiness and sleep attacks.

This parasomnia disorder can increase in frequency if you’re not getting enough sleep, but it can also be triggered by stress.

If you’re not getting enough sleep, wehave a solution.

We wrote a HUGE article about things you can do to improve your sleep and fall asleep faster. You should check it out and try one or two of those things if you’re having trouble sleeping. 

Bipolar disorder or other kinds of mental health conditions can also contribute to sleep paralysis. In case you’re encountering frequent sleep paralysis episodes, including frequent hallucinations, you should consult with your doctor.

9: REM Sleep Behavior

Specialists worry about this parasomnia disorder the MOST, as it can cause you to act out your dreams in a way that could be harmful to yourself or others.

People experiencing this disorder can try to DEFEND themselves from a non-existent threat physically, and can, therefore, hurt themselves and their bed partner.

Sleep researchers believe that the neurological barriers that divide sleep and awake states don’t function properly. Still, they don’t fully understand the cause of such occurrences.

In both the sleep paralysis and REM sleep behavior, you’re acting out your dreams. However, unlike sleep paralysis, where you can’t move, with REM sleep behavior, your muscles are entirely active.

This might allow you to be violent. For some people, this phenomenon is linked to the use of antidepressants, but experts aren’t sure why and how strong the connection may be.

If you’re suffering from REM sleep behavior disorder, seeing a sleep specialist is strongly recommended.

Final Thoughts

For most people, parasomnia disorders aren’t that scary, as most of us experienced some form of it. Still, those might be just minor parasomnias, like a nightmare, or sleep-talking. Everyone has had one of those at least once in their life.

Minor parasomnias may be scary, but they’re mostly harmless, and you might not even remember them after waking up. In most cases, they are attributed to sleep deprivation, stress or alcohol, and drug use, with sporadic instances of clinical cause.

However, major parasomnias are a different matter. Keep in mind that certain aspects of sleep and its mechanics are still a mystery for the scientific community. For that reason, most causes for major parasomnias aren’t entirely known or known at all.

Still, individuals suffering from any major parasomnia disorder should seek medical attention because they can pose a danger to themselves or others.