Why We Feel Like We’re Falling When We Sleep

2 years ago

You wake up abruptly in the middle of the night, almost jumping out of bed because you felt like you were falling off into the void. You experience a jolt, but you don’t quite understand what has happened. If any of this sounds familiar, don’t worry, chances are you just experienced what scientists know as a hypnagogic or hypnic jerk.

So, if by any chance you’re reading this because you were woken up by a hypnic jerk in the middle of the night, Bright Side will tell you what it is and its possible causes.

Hypnic jerks and the feeling of falling

As consciousness leaves our bodies when we fall asleep, the brain begins working differently from when we are awake. During this transition from wakefulness to sleep, something known as hypnic jerking can occur. A hypnic jerk is the sudden movement that resembles a twitch, that feeling we get when something scares us suddenly.

This strange movement is the result of a myoclonic spasm, a sudden and involuntary twitch of a muscle or a group of muscles that can occur alone or in sequence, with or without a pattern. Hiccups, for example, are another very common form of myoclonic spasms.

Hypnic jerks typically consist of a single contraction and are associated with a falling sensation, the beginning of a dream (either visual or auditory), or a vivid hypnagogic hallucination (produced when the person is falling asleep).

What causes that feeling

Hypnic jerks usually happen when a person is falling asleep. It’s common for these twitches to cause confusion about when sleep actually begins and whether we’re dreaming or not. Although their cause is not very clear and the information available is limited, scientists believe these may be some reasons:

  • Physical activity: Exercising too close to bedtime can overstimulate your body and make it very hard to fall asleep early.
  • Anxiety and stress: Going to sleep with a lot of worry in mind can keep your brain active longer than needed, which in turn could cause it to send warning signals even while the body is sleeping.
  • Caffeine and other stimulants: These and other stimulant products affect the body’s ability to sleep naturally and get a deep night’s sleep.
  • Sleep deprivation: Other sleep disorders and bad sleeping habits may also be related to these spasms.

In addition to these possible causes, there is another interesting theory with an evolutionary perspective that explains why hypnic jerks occur. According to research from the University of Colorado, these jerks could be an archaic reflex that happens when the natural relaxation of the muscles during sleep is mistakenly interpreted by the brain as a risk of falling from the tree where our ancestors used to sleep.

Hypnic jerks don’t always wake us up.

The intensity of a hypnic jerk can vary. Experiencing one doesn’t always wake us up in panic. Sometimes, the twitch is mild and doesn’t disturb our sleep. However, if we have a sleeping partner, they might notice it.

At times, the muscle contraction doesn’t just wake us up, but leaves us in a state of shock for a few seconds. Some people even feel as if they’ve been pushed out of bed. This feeling is accentuated if we dream that we’re falling from a building or another high place.

When to visit the doctor

The good news is that it’s not a serious disorder nor one that causes complications. In fact, it’s rarely a sign of a bigger problem. According to research, between 60% and 70% of people suffer from these night spasms regardless of age or gender.

Normally, if you experience hypnic jerks, it’s not necessary to go to the doctor. However, it is recommended to do so when the episodes are so frequent that they affect the ability to fall or stay asleep. In those cases, a specialist will be able to rule out neurological or sleep disorders that could potentially require treatment.

Have you ever had the feeling of falling while you were asleep? What other weird experiences have you had while sleeping? Do you like that feeling or does it bother you?


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