It’s been a long day. You are beginning to drift off to sleep, when you suddenly experience a wild, magical, or disturbing vision. This dream-like state is referred to as a hypnagogic hallucination, and it can make you second guess your present existence. It can be triggered by stress, medication, or even a hidden medical condition. If you have ever wondered why you have hypnagogic hallucinations, or why your body jerks as you start to sleep, continue reading to discover more about this common mystery.
What Are Hypnagogic Hallucinations?
Hypnagogic refers to the period of time between our awakened state and when we fall asleep, also known as drifting off or being drowsy. In this state, you can be slightly aware of your environment and may even have dream-like thoughts, but hypnagogic hallucinations are much more vivid and life-like. You may hear a sound that isn’t actually real or see a person not physically in the room. Sensations may manifest in visual, auditory, olfactory, or tactile forms and can be very disturbing to some people. One in four members of the general public experience a hypnagogic hallucination in their lifetime. It usually begins in young adulthood and rare in children.
Symptoms of Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Hypnagogic hallucinations symptoms revolve around one of the sensory forms, with visions being the most common. It can last from a split second to several minutes.
A visual hallucination may appear as an image of a person, an animal, a shape, dots, or even a light force. The image can be blurry or as clear as if you were awake looking at it.
Many report hearing sounds as another common hallucination. These sounds can be low or soft, high or loud, or a progressive range of noises. The sound may be a knock, footsteps, music, television voices, animal noises, humming, whistling, or even talking. In the book Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep, author Andreas Mavromatis refers to the hallucination of hearing a person talk as your inner thoughts being read out loud.
Feeling something or someone touching you can be very alarming, especially when you are alone in bed. With a tactile sensation, it may feel like pain, soft touch, pressure, rubbing, or a creepy-crawly feeling of spiders or bugs on you.
Our sense of smell is strong, but it is one of the less common forms of hallucinations. The smell may be fresh, crisp air; delectable food; smoke; or the terrifying smell of burning human flesh.
These hypnagogic hallucinations are not real, but they should not be confused with a mental disorder or illness. While there are mental states that may trigger this condition, it can also be caused by external factors.
Causes of Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Hypnagogic hallucination causes are difficult to isolate as each case is as unique as the individual experiencing it. Additionally, many people are more tuned into one form of the senses than the others. As they say, the mind is a wonderful thing, and our creative brain is at the center of such hallucinations.
1. Auto Symbolism
The idea behind this process is that the hallucination is a form of thoughts or ideas of the patient at the present time. This imagery is then developed into a real life form or idea.
The hypnagogic hallucination may also be caused by your conscious concentration on a recent thought. It could also be a subconscious idea or a combination of both.
3. Rapid Eye Movement
A state of mind resembling REM can occur during this hypnagogic state. This may be the reason behind the extreme vivid images some people see.
A prescribed or over-the-counter drug that affects the neurotransmission process may cause a hypnagogic hallucination. These can include of anti-depressants, opioids, and sleeping pills.
5. Recreational Drugs
The hallucination effect that often follows the use of some illegal drugs may become a permanent occurrence with regular usage. Imagery and sounds may also occur during a withdrawal from use of a drug.
6. Sleep Schedule
An irregular sleep routine such as that followed by shift workers can create a change in the brain activity as well as other processes of the body. This may cause hypnagogic hallucinations.
7. Sleep Position
The positioning of the body for a comfortable night sleep may stir hallucinations, especially when lying on the back. This is a common position of those who experience terrifying hypnagogic hallucinations.
This form of relaxation and stress relief can be accomplished through many different techniques. Some methods can allow one to save, or imbed, a particular image in their mind, which they may bring to life during the hypnagogic stage.
A hallucination may form from a memory that your brain has held on to for the immediate, short-term, or long-term basis. This is also with case with incidents stemming from our semantic memory.
10. Sensory Deprivation
Any alteration to one or more of your senses may cause a hypnagogic hallucination incident. This can happen with the use of ear buds or a floatation tank.
11. Health Conditions
There are certain health conditions that may cause hypnagogic hallucinations separate from the effects of the designated treatment. This can be one of the hurdles for patients with severe stress or anxiety, brain damage, trauma, neurodegenerative diseases, learning disabilities, mental illness, sleep disorders, epilepsy, and narcolepsy.
Treating Hypnagogic Hallucinations
The hypnagogic hallucinations treatments depend on the severity of the incident as well as whether it is interfering with your daily activities. For those with hallucinations caused by prescribed medications or existing health conditions, your medical professional should be consulted. We have gathered tips and home remedies that may help with alleviating or preventing your hypnagogic hallucinations.
- Limit alcohol use
- Follow a sleep schedule
- Reduce stress
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Keep hydrated
- Use a night light
- Do breathing exercises in bed
- Wear a sleeping mask
- Avoid use of recreational drugs
- Keep a sleep journal
If you experience a hypnagogic hallucination, it is important to remember it is not real and is a harmless projection. Try not to panic and you may need to learn to accept it as part of your thinking process. Natural sleep supplements that may help include valerian root and melatonin.
Hypnagogic Hallucinations: Vivid, Dream-Like Sensations
Hypnagogic hallucinations are physically harmless but can incite terror in a person. These sounds, images, smells, or physical sensations can be linked to underlying health conditions, mental state, physical processes, and an individual’s sleeping routine. While any disruption to prescribed treatment to avoid these hallucinations should be discussed with a medical professional, there are natural ways to help reduce or stop the events.
Green, E., “Hypnagogic Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump in the Night,” No Sleepless Nights, March 7, 2017; http://www.nosleeplessnights.com/hypnagogic-hallucinations/, last accessed April 13, 2017.
“Hypnagogic Hallucinations: Causes, Types, & Treatment,” Mental Health Daily; http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/05/16/hypnagogic-hallucinations-causes-types-treatment/, last accessed April 13, 2017.
“Hypnagogic Hallucinations,” Patient; https://patient.info/doctor/hypnagogic-hallucinations, last accessed April 13, 2017.