Childhood Trauma Adult Night Terrors

Hi everyone, I have been posting and talking about my night terrors/nightmares recently and I have been asked about the difference between the two and what the relationship is between these and PTSD and C-PTSD.

I was going to write a response on the Facebook page and I felt that it would be a better idea to make this available to everyone by creating a blog post about these common symptoms that childhood trauma survivors and any trauma survivors endure.

What are Night Terrors and How are they related to Complex PTSD and PTSD?

Note: I feel the need to note that I will be touching base on what specifically PTSD and CPTSD are at a later time, when I do I will be sure to link up all the pages and post to the Facebook page as well.

Night Terrors

Night Terrors, from which I and many survivors of childhood abuse and other traumas suffer, are a sleep disorder where the sufferer partially wakes up in a state of terror. It is important to understand that night terrors are not the same as nightmares. Nightmares are basically bad dreams. We will get to that in a moment. In adults, night terrors are a common symptom of C-PTSD and PTSD. It is also a symptom of other mental health disorders.

The sufferer of night terrors will partially wake while the symptoms of panic, the fight or flight response of the body is activated and this can cause the following symptoms:

  • Note that these are just a few of the symptoms; sufferers of night terrors can have a plethora of symptoms as everyone is different, so their responses are too.
  • Body paralysis
  • Panic Attacks
  • Racing Heart
  • Physical reaction such as self-harm, attacking loved ones who are trying to help and so on.
  • Screaming or thrashing around as though being attacked
  • Hyperventilating
  • Sweating, as if they have a fever
  • Rapid Heart Rate
  • Have difficulty being woken up and if they do wake up they can be confused and scared
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • This is one I found really interesting because it has happened to me all throughout my life and I had no idea: Many people see spiders, snakes, animals or people in the room

Typically the sufferer of night terrors will start to wake up slowly and feel like they are still trapped in the trauma they are experiencing. It will feel like it is still happening and sometimes they are unaware of their surroundings.

Some will fall back asleep and not remember the episode and others will have trouble calming down and falling back asleep. Typically, if the sufferer is an adult, they will remember their night terror. Children are a different issue and I will not go into that as this page is really for adult survivors of childhood abuse and PTSD and C-PTSD.

Night terrors occur during a deep non-REM sleep, typically within an hour after the sufferer has gone to sleep. Night terrors can last anywhere from five to twenty minutes. It is interesting to note that while the suffer is sleeping during their night terrors, their eyes may be open.

Some people remember their night terror and others do not. It is like everything dependent on the person and as we know, everyone responds to trauma differently. The interesting thing about the night terrors is that they are not dreams, they are typically experienced as feelings. Reliving feelings of trauma.


Nightmares are different from night terrors as they are dreams. They happen during normal REM sleep. The nightmare can upset and frighten the sufferer who will often wake up with vivid memories of the nightmare which will eventually (not always but most of the time) fade away.

Nightmares can be so vivid and real and can cause the sleeper to have rapid heart rates and can cause the sleeper to wake up with a panic attack. Often nightmares can have common themes for the person dreaming. They are running from someone or something, they cannot run fast enough. They relive past experiences.

There are actually some basic symptoms of a nightmare disorder:
• Waking up through out the night often with a strong recollection of the dreams that one has. They typically have to do with fighting for survival.
• When the person wakes up they are alert instantly
• The effects of the nightmares stick with the person and can affect their daily functioning

My Personal Experience with Night Terrors and Nightmares

Okay, so I feel the need to state that I am not an expert. I am someone who is learning as she goes and I am trying to help people along the way. Because I have felt so alone and I wanted to connect and be a part of a community of survivors and protectors and people who encourage and communicate. How amazing it is that my Facebook page has become this very supportive community? I love you guys. <3

I have been talking about nightmares and night terrors lately and a few of our community members have been asking for clarification on these two different symptoms. Initially I was just going to respond to them on Facebook and then I realized how important this information is for trauma survivors and I wanted to do some research and find out myself what the difference was.

There is a plethora of information out there so please, if you want to learn more take a look at some of the links below. Think about the sources of what you read and educate yourself on what you are suffering through. That is the key to healing. Acceptance. Education. Understanding.

I plan on talking with my psychologist and psychiatrist on this matter because after doing the research, I am a little confused as to what I am actually suffering through. I think it may be a mixture of both. I am not sure. I will update this and post on the Facebook page once I have more information on my personal symptoms.

I have never been a restful sleeper. I have had nightmares my entire life, every night. I can still remember some from when I was a kid. One in particular was just after I had been adopted. My biological mother was a zombie and she was trying to get me and it was terrifying.

After my biological mother took her own life I would have dreams every night with the same theme, I was trying to find her. I was searching for her and I would almost find her but then she would be just out of reach. She was always with her back to me. These dreams stopped after I had one where I finally found her. She was in the last home we lived in together before she died. There was this wooden bed with pictures taped to it. They were all of my biological siblings but not me. I tried to tell her who I was. I tried to bring her back with me, but as I stood in the doorway she just looked at me, no recognition in her face. I was no one to her, nothing.

To my younger self these nightmares brought back the loss and grief that I had grown up with. The neglect and the longing. The deep longing for love and affection and for a mother who would protect and comfort me.

All of my nightmares that I remember throughout my life, aside from the ones about my mother have had similar themes. Either I am being hunted by a darkness that I cannot see or describe, or I am trying to save people. Those have always been the worse. Trying to save people from danger and failing.

Adult Survivors of Childhood Trauma Twin TowersAfter 9/11 I had this dream that I still remember, it was so vivid. Now, at this time I was struggling with C-PTSD and PTSD from that event. I did not realize what that meant at the time. They were just words. I did not understand the significance. Anyway, I am sure when September rolls around I will write a long post on 9/11, for now I will tell you about one of two dreams I had after it and then I will tell you about what is happening to me now.

The first dream was of me in one of the towers. There was a big staircase that went all the way up to the top of the building and the building was filled with a bright white light. People were everywhere. Talking and unconcerned. I was standing on the staircase carrying a huge teddy bear. It was a big brown bear, almost as big as me.

I suddenly knew that the tower was going to fall and I started to shout at people to run, they had to get out of the building but they ignored me. I threw the teddy bear down and as he fell down the stairs people just stood and looked at me. I screamed at them, trying to make them understand they had to leave. I tried to pull them down the stairs to the entrance but they would not budge.

I saw two children and I ran toward them down the stairs, yelling at people until my voice was horse trying to get them to leave, it was going to happen. It was happening. The building was crumbling and falling and I ran past the big bear and down the stairs and I grabbed the two children. One in each arm and ran out the front doors.

Franticly I looked for safety and I saw a big orange vehicle used for construction and I ran toward it with the children in my arms. I ran around it to the other side and couched down, covering the children with my body as the building fell and the dust covered everything. I couldn’t breathe but I held onto them and protected them with my body while tears ran down my face as I knew the others had not survived.

After some time there was silence. I opened my eyes and watched as the dust floated before me, a dark snow falling softly covering everything. As I turned to look at the children I had been protecting I realized that I was holding skeletons. The children that I had thought I had saved faded away to dust and I was alone in a grey wasteland.

That nightmare stayed with me all this time and I think it will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. The grief of having failed to protect the innocent. Of having witnessed the destruction of the two landmarks that had been a staple in my life. The people who had just been going to work and living their lives all gone in a moment and I was unable to save any of them. Even the two children that I had dragged out of the building.

Now, I am having nightmares and night terrors (I Think) that are bringing up the past. The feelings of abandonment, and loss and being unloved and alone. Seeking and losing. I wake up and I can not move and I feel like I am still in the dream. I feel as though it is real and it takes some time before I am able to move and when I can my heart is breaking and I am crying and my chest feels like it will explode. When I do fall asleep again, it starts all over and every night is like this. Every night I dream of loss and of being unworthy and dirty and wrong. I dream of sexual abuse and I dream of being yelled at and hated and every time I wake up I am unable to move and I feel like it is real.

I dream of trying to save people and failing, I dream of fighting to protect people and killing to protect people and it is so real. My heart breaks when I am able to move. My chest hurts with the grief I feel and in the morning I am so exhausted I do not know how I can make it through the day. I fear losing everything that I have worked for because I feel like I am falling apart.

So to answer your questions my friends, I am not entirely sure what the difference is between Night Terrors and Nightmares in my case because I seem to have the symptoms of both. The emotions and the vivid imagery, the sweating as though I have a fever, hyperventilating, raid heart rate, panic attacks, paralysis. So I will touch base with you all once I have some answers from my team.

I hope that for those of you who wanted to understand the symptoms have a better understanding now. If you have any more questions, send me a message and I will do my best to answer them for you.

I am now taking medication for these symptoms. I am not sure if it will work or not, all I can do is try and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Because something has to give. I can not keep living like this.

Anyway. Night Terrors and Nightmares are different and they are a common symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD. I will write more when I find out more. -Jess

3 replies
  1. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    I think I am a bit confused by the differences also. Please don’t take that as a reflection of what you have written. My brain does not always process properly and I have to read over again, sometimes several times, before it clicks. Focusing is a bit challenging sometimes. I can say, though, that I have one of the two types of “dreams”. I don’t usually remember details. I wake with the FEELINGS and EMOTIONS of horrible dreams, sometimes in a panic, and sometimes frozen. Sometimes there are signs all around my bed that indicate struggle; all kinds of stuff knocked over on the headboard and night stand, multiple things in the floor, covers are a conglomerate mess, no pillows on the bed, etc. I’ll wake up with my hair stuck to me from sweating. On rare occasion do I wake up, but it happens. Gabapentin and Zanex might have something to do with my staying asleep. I don’t know for sure. They do have a tendency to knock me out, but they sure don’t stop the dreams. I’m still exhausted every morning and go through my day in a fog… no wonder I can’t focus, eh? Thank you for the blog post. It’s a great subject and thought provoking. I’ll do some research, too, and see what I can find. Until then, BIG hugs.

    • Jess
      Jess says:

      Kelly, I have found out that we can have both types are the same time in addition there is a disorder called Nightmare Disorder which we can also be suffering from. It is really interesting learning about this. Painful to go through but there are treatments. In addition, it does sound like you are suffering from the Night Terrors which seem to match your symptoms. <3

  2. Kelly Tyroler
    Kelly Tyroler says:

    I’ve had nightmares and night terrors sporadically for most of my life. The irony is I didn’t start having them every night until I finally got my life in order. I’m actually more stable (physically, mentally, spititually) than I have been in my ENTIRE life. I have a theory that its the last refuge for all my fears, traumas, failures, etc. I guess before my odessey of night terrors began as a second job, the aforementioned features were spread out due to my everyday existence being a kind of constant night terror. This is not what I ever would have imagined. I thought it would subside once everything calmed down, but it never does it just finds other dwellings. Apologies for the poor grammar, sentence structure, and flowery vocab. Thank you for the intel… Nice piece!


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