Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night

photo of a woman in bed experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations

Do strange images of geometric shapes, people or animals appear out of nowhere as you lie in bed at night? Perhaps you’ve heard voices or noises which can’t possibly be real?

If so, it could be that you’ve experienced what’s known as sleep hallucinations.

Despite leading to the occasional leap out of bed in sheer terror, they are usually harmless. And many people experience them at some point in their lives – including me.

My nocturnal flying geometric manifestations

As a child, multicolored geometric shapes would regularly swoop across my bedroom, just as I was drifting off to sleep. I remember simultaneously marveling at them and wishing them away so I could sleep in peace.

It doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but once in a while, I’m still prone to my mathematical manifestations.

Perhaps I should be grateful for my geeky hallucinations – especially compared to the disturbing experiences some people have.


What are sleep hallucinations?

Sleep hallucinations are imaginary experiences that happen during the transition between being awake and asleep, and can feel confusingly real.

They are also referred to as hypnagogic hallucinations if they occur while you’re falling asleep, or hypnopompic hallucinations if they happen while waking up.

The hallucinations are usually visual, such as seeing shapes or figures in the dark. But they can also involve your other senses.

The hallucinations can be vivid and frightening in some cases. If you see a giant creature in your room or hear a scary voice, it’s understandable that some people will jump out of bed and turn the light on to check what’s going on!

image explaining that hypagogic hallucinations occur while falling asleep and hypnopompic hallucinations while waking up

How many people have sleep hallucinations?

A commonly quoted statistic in medical articles comes from research conducted in 1996. The team interviewed 4972 people in the United Kingdom by telephone. They found that 37% had experienced hypnagogic hallucinations. And 12.5% had experienced hypnopompic hallucinations.

In 2000, another team of researchers surveyed 13,057 people and found that 38.7% had experienced hallucinations at some point during the day or night. 24.8% of the sample had experienced hallucinations at sleep onset, and 6.6% upon waking.

A sign of Narcolepsy

For some people, sleep hallucinations can be a sign of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder which involves sudden daytime episodes of:

  • Unexpectedly falling asleep
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations

If you have these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice.


Symptoms


The main symptom is seeing or hearing things while falling asleep or waking up that aren’t real.

Researchers believe that the most common type of hallucination is visual. However, it’s possible to experience hallucinations that correspond to any of your senses:

  • Visual – such as geometric patterns, shapes or light flashing. Sometimes complex forms like animals or people.
  • Auditory – voices talking, phone or doorbell ringing, music, hissing, humming or whistling.
  • Olfactory – pleasant or unpleasant smells.
  • Tactile – insects crawling on the skin, rubbing, stroking, tapping or tickling sensations. Perhaps also feeling weightless, distortions in the body, flying.
image of a woman in bed with patterns and animal forms around her

Not the same as nightmares

Telling the difference between dreaming and hallucinating isn’t always obvious in the moment. But sleep hallucinations are not the same as nightmares.

When you wake up from a nightmare, you’ll know you were asleep (even if it takes a little while to come back to reality).

Sleep hallucinations, however, can feel like they are really happening. You know you’re awake, but you’re not convinced it’s merely your imagination playing tricks on you.

Coexisting with sleep paralysis

Sleep hallucinations sometimes happen during an episode of sleep paralysis.

During sleep paralysis, you might be unable to move your body in bed, which in itself is often frightening.

The hallucinations that accompany it can range from seeing a presence in the room to seeing and feeling a creature sitting on you.


Causes


The International Classification of Sleep Disorders manual suggests two causes related to brain function, though also states that more research is needed:

  • An intrusion of dream imagery onto wakefulness.
  • A lack of stimulus leading to the visual cortex in the brain creating images.

Health websites, such as healthline.com, suggest that sleep hallucinations can be caused by other conditions, such as:

  • Sleep disorders like narcolepsy or sleep paralysis
  • A medical condition or medication use
  • A mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse

Risk factors

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, they are more common in children and young adults. Women might experience them slightly more often than men.

Some factors are thought to increase the likelihood or severity of the hallucinations, including:

  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Mood disorders like bipolar disorder or depression
  • Insomnia
  • Epileptic seizures

Treatment


Do you need to see a doctor?

If you’re experiencing anxiety or losing sleep because of regular sleep hallucinations, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor or sleep specialist.

They would ask you about your hallucinations and look at your medical history and other factors like medication and lifestyle. They might decide that an overnight sleep study is needed to find out more.

They would also look at the possibility of another condition causing the episodes. And if they find one, give you the appropriate treatment.

Worried about your mental health?

If you suddenly start having hallucinations, it’s understandable that you might question your mental health. This is a point I’ve seen raised in the comments below many times, so you wouldn’t be alone in thinking something was ‘wrong’ with you.

It’s worth noting that if it only ever happens when you’re in bed trying to sleep, there’s a good chance it’s harmless sleep hallucinations. Perhaps it’s a sign you’re under a lot of stress lately, for example, but it might not be an indicator that something is wrong beyond that.

Having said that, if you have hallucinations during the day, or other symptoms that are making you feel anxious or confused about your mental health, then it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. And if you’re still not convinced the nighttime hallucinations are benign, talk to your doctor to get a professional opinion.

If this line of thinking feels relevant to you, there’s a good article on psychologytoday.com in which a clinical psychologist talks a patient having sleep problems rather than a schizophrenic illness.

What can you do to help reduce them?

Here are some ideas which might help keep the hallucinations at bay:

  • Get an adequate amount of sleep every night. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule and don’t allow yourself to become sleep deprived.
  • Avoid recreational drugs.
  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water.
  • Try to reduce your stress levels.
  • Try using a soft night light in the bedroom. This might help fill the space that your brain uses as a blank canvas.
  • If you tend to have auditory hallucinations, listening to music, radio or a podcast in bed might help.
  • If you find yourself focusing on visual hallucinations, try to re-focus your mind on something else. Breathing exercises or muscle relaxation can keep your brain occupied.
  • If it’s overwhelming, turn on a light and get up for a while, do an activity you find relaxing, and then try to sleep again after 10-15 minutes.
  • Several readers have said in the comments below that wearing a sleep mask helps them.

Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are a normal part of life for many people. Once you’ve ruled out any serious illness or disorder, you’re left to deal with the experience in two ways.

First, try to adapt your lifestyle to make sure you do everything possible to sleep well. Second, relax and try not to worry about things that go bump in the night.

Your thoughts

Do you ever experience hallucinations when falling asleep or waking up? What form do they take?

Feel free to describe your experience in the comments below and share any ideas you have about dealing with them.

1,440 thoughts on “Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night”

  1. I’m in my 60s now but in my teens and 20s I had a few very odd things happen usually as I was falling asleep. When I would be drifting off I would see large white, slightly fuzzy geometric shapes whizzing by me. Lol I use to describe them as big car dice flying by ( older folk will get that )This happened almost every night. I had extremely vivid dreams about dying. Always to do with my chest being crushed or pierced. I also had vivid dreams about flying. Usually with a fear of not getting back down. Lastly and this only happened once, just as I was drifting off an older grey-haired woman was standing at the foot of my bed. I sat bolt upright in bed and she remained there briefly then faded away. I really don’t talk about it much. It seems easier to do it here.

  2. I am so grateful that I found this website I thought I was losing my mind when I fall asleep and I wake up I see people standing over me looking at me or a bunch of people leaving my room waving but I only see them when I wake up I am 72 years old this has Been happening for about 4 years thank you.

  3. Hypnopompic hallucinations have just started happening to me at almost 60. At first, I was alarmed but I’m starting to realize I am hallucinating. I’m very nearsighted but in the hallucinations, I can see perfectly clear images. It still takes me a minute to realize the spiders in my bed aren’t real but I can much more easily convince myself it was a hallucination rather than a real arachnoid.

  4. I am 67 years old Atheist woman (not believe in anything but science) within the last few months, some nights I experience this wired incident that I feel something not heavy, like a very lightweight cat or dog, is jumping in my bed close to my feet but since I am not yet deeply sleep I look and see nothing!! I do not hear any voices or not see any object, it is just like something very light as my little dog’s weight jumps on the bed. what could that be??!!!!!

    1. I have been having a similar experience with thinking my small dog has gotten into bed with me when she is actually locked in her crate. It feels like she’s crawling around through the blankets. When I sit up and start to try to find her I start to realize it isn’t real and I’m in some sort of inbetween/hallucination state. Then I just fall back asleep.

  5. I see giant spiders crawling on the walls. When I say giant I mean there is no way a real spider could ever be that big. They are like monster spiders. I also see red orbs floating around and sometimes it feels like someone is slowly pulling the covers off of me. Last night for the first time I saw a flower fly past on the ceiling.

  6. Hi everyone
    I’ve been having these nighttime visions since I was a teenager. I can remember waking in the middle of the night and seeing a giant spider on my bed or a dark figure walking into my room. As an adult, I was once woken by a loud bang, and when I opened my eyes, what looked like a static electricity ball without the glass was floating towards my face. I’ve never been as frightened and ran out of my bedroom. At Christmas this year I woke to see a short woman with long dark hair beside my bed. She was looking right at me, smiling, and then she gradually floated away. Over the last year I often see floating objects with moving tentacles – sometimes bright red, or pink. These things tend to happen when I’ve been working at a computer screen late at night. Only once did I experience audio hallucinations – I heard the sound of the same note being played three times on a piano.
    Very strange! :)

  7. My experience was doubly terrifying because it was a hypnopompic hallucination with sleep paralysis. I was sleeping on my side facing my bedroom door which was ajar. When this man wearing a ski mask with wide crazy eyes and a terrifying butcher knife advanced over to my bedside.

    In my half-asleep state I remember realizing that he was intent on murdering me. I tried opening my eyes, waking up, but nothing. I tried to scream, but no sound would come out. I was paralyzed and felt helpless. It was the most terrified I have been my entire life. I couldn’t sleep again in my bed for a few months.

  8. I’m traveling a lot for work right now and I’ve definitely had some issues with insomnia, especially last week and I am still catching up on my sleep. The funny thing is, I don’t feel tired, but I can tell I need to rest. It’s funny, I feel slower, my cognitive functions feel drained, but I just don’t feel like sleeping is the answer. However, I’m going to sleep anyway because I just need to be kind to me. For the last couple of nights, I’ve been waking up and seeing spiders on the ceiling, but they hide in the curtains. I totally relate to someone’s earlier post about seeing a big spider on the ceiling, a few years ago, I had jumped over my spouse in bed and I hit just below my eyebrow on the corner of a non-sharp tall dresser – trying to run from the spider. I had been going through a job change at the time, this happened the night before a big interview- ugh. It left a horrible gash over my eye, I had a black eye. :-( Thank god that doesn’t happen very often. I’m trying right now to be more in tune with my body and that helps. I notice that I’m restless at night, so just trying to unwind is hard. I don’t drink or do drugs. Alcohol messes with my sleep even more, do I just stopped drinking altogether. My digestive system though, If I’m backed up, my sleep suffers, so I find I have to take probiotics in the day and a magnesium a few nights a week. ( I also do keto diet, so high protein. I think also my neck is a factor. I end up going to the chiropractor for just pain in my atlas/ axis. Anyone else notice more than just these waking nightmares?

  9. I’ve had bad dream all my life, I see spiders, scary faces, I have seen a person standing beside me or on the walls, if there things hanging on a wall I see faces on them, I see things moving across the walls, once I saw a scary ghost-like face on my wall and I ran from my bed to the living room and I then woke up. I get them right after I fall asleep, I’ve tried a night light which sometimes stops it but they soon come back, tonight I will try an eye mask, I’m sometimes scared to go to sleep I pray that I don’t have one each night this has been with me in every home I live in.

  10. I suffer from sleep paralysis and have for years plus hypnagogic hallucinations although I have only just come across what they are by searching why my repetitive dream feels so real and why I can hear sounds.

    It starts by hearing a door handle being tried, I go downstairs and into the kitchen, the first time I was very confused as it was the old kitchen before we enlarged it and added a large conservatory. I can hear the back door being tried and I ho to see who is there, it is the same old green door, brass handle with two clear windows, one which is cracked. Outside I can see a youngish girl who is trying to open the locked door, I have no idea who she is, but it terrifies me. Then I am suddenly back in bed and awake. This same hallucination happens at least once a month, I know what is going to happen, but I still go to the door.

  11. Between asleep and awake I dreamt I saw a massive spider on the ceiling and I jumped out of bed in a panic, fell and hurt my arm pretty bad. Poor cat got scared cos she was sleepy right next to me. As i was still half awake half asleep I remember saying to my partner “there’s a massive spider up there” and he said “there’s nothing there” and helped me up off the floor. Then I suddenly realized it was a dream and came back to reality lol

  12. I’ll see spiders and sometimes circular objects floating in the air while I’m trying to go to sleep and I’ll jump up and turn on the lights but nothing is there.

  13. I have had a sleep disorder beginning at about 8 or 9 years old. I would have vivid dreams of ghosts or ghouls hovering over me, standing next to me, or seeping through the window! (Also flattened above me on the ceiling & occasionally swooping in at me!) I would usually awaken screaming & hollering.
    I would also sleepwalk and once woke up next door pounding on their door to let me in…..after this, my parents put footstools near my path so that they would trip me and stall my journey!
    Over the years (I am now 69) I continue with dreams! There are still people standing by my bed staring at me or hovering in the room. Recently, within the past two years, I seem to have more hypnogogic hallucinations minutes or seconds after closing my eyes at bedtime! I usually wake up hollering…..did you see them or it??
    Two weeks ago, I chased IT down the hall !! Thank God it didn’t chase me back!!!! The hypnogogic hallucinations seem to be increasing, not decreasing.

    PS…….they seem to have intensified recently after I started taking a Statin (Atorvistatin). Some people listed hallucinations as a side effect……but the Doctor said that he had never heard of this!!!
    PPS…….when our kids were younger and they had friends over for a sleepover, the friends would say…..”Who is that hollering?”…….the kids would say…..”Oh, that’s just Daddy!!!”

    1. I can totally relate to everything you have written! I vividly remember my first experience of an elderly man’s bearded head hovering next to my bed when I was approximately 5 yrs old. However, I wasn’t scared at all and had the feel that he was watching over me in a protective manner. The geometric shapes, dark figures and generally evil “masses” have definitely increased with age, I am 62, but over the last 10 years appear a lot more malevolent.

  14. I am a 23 year old female from Sweden. For the past few months I wake up (or am about to fall asleep) and I can hear people and see people in my room. They often tell me to do stuff or tell me to get out of my apartment. They often put up stuff in my room and they look intimidating at first glance but when I look again they are gone. I know that nothing is real and often I can try to fall back to sleep, but once or twice a week I have to get up to check nothing is going on. I usually wake up to these images 2 to 3 times every night, it’s exhausting.

    I already know I have anxiety and I suffer from light insomnia to which I take extra melatonin pills each night to be able to feel sleepy enough to fall asleep. I have suffered from depression that comes and goes. I have a lot of headaches during the day too.

  15. I sometimes see a scary old woman’s face as I am drifting off to sleep. It frightens me so much I have to then sleep with the light on. I am 34 and suffer from depression, OCD, anxiety so maybe has something to do with this

  16. Jakob R Rodgers

    18 yr old here me and my girlfriend both suffer from this and both see something akin to flesh is how I would describe it has anyone else here seen this cause I haven’t heard of it except for us 2

  17. About once a week I hallucinate bugs, of varying types flying around my room. Normally they’re in the corners of my ceiling but I also see them on my walls and recently on my pillows. I’m a teen and I’ve always slept walked, talked, and hallucinated. Just something I deal with and bothers my friends and family when they’re around. It normally happens as I’m falling asleep.

  18. I’m a 24 year old female. When I was a teenager, there were nights when I used to jump out of bed in a panic. It’s hard to explain but I thought there was a spider in my bed. I would search my blankets and pillows, then when I didn’t find anything, I’d realize it must’ve been a dream. I’d be standing there, beside my bed in the middle of the night, lamp on, half asleep, thinking I was crazy. And no matter how many times it happened, it always felt so real. I used to think – I’ve been through this so many times, why can’t I stop myself from feeling terrified, jumping out of bed, searching my sheets, etc? It’s like I had to go through the period of panic before I could come to my senses and realize what was happening. I could never just tell myself, “oh, it’s happening again, it’s not real”, because in that moment, I am just SCARED. I’d finish tearing my bed apart and think “why did I do this again?”. Like my brain was in a fog and I was not fully conscious, or aware, if that makes sense…I always wondered why people with sleep paralysis couldn’t just tell themselves it wasn’t real and snap out of it, but I think I get it now. Anyway. As an adult, I struggle with substance abuse, but I’m not sure if that plays a factor or not since I had the same experience as a kid. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, I sit up in bed, terrified, thinking someone is in the room. It wakes my husband, and he is a heavy sleeper. I’m always half asleep, disoriented when he asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him it was just a bad dream. I’m so glad I have a name for it now. So the other night, I woke up and saw a tall, slender figure standing by my side of the bed, facing me. I sat up and grabbed my phone, again, in full panic mode. I shined the light and there was nothing there. Lately I’ve been seeing figures, and it’s so much worse than spiders. Reading other comments, I realize mine is not as bad as some, but still it is comforting to know I’m not alone…

    1. Thank goodness I am not alone… I finally have an explanation for this. I too wake up terrified to find someone staring at me from the side of the bed. I scream and scare my poor husband half to death. I am going to try the night light …

    2. hi there, this exact same thing happens to me and I completely understand what u mean and how u feel. I’ve felt so lost and scared about it but a psychiatrist recently explained to me that I was having hypnagogic hallucinations, and now reading these comments of other people saying they experience the same things as me, although upsetting as I don’t wish anyone to experience this, is sort of comforting knowing I’m not alone in it.

  19. Joyce Hampton Simms

    This just started for me. As I am waking up, something is on me. Like food and I can hear myself saying what the hell is that. Then wake up. This is scary to me, I am 79 yrs old and yes I have been stressed over this Trump thing. How do I stop it? I don’t like it at all.

  20. So glad I came upon this site, for a while now I have felt what feels like a small cat walking on my bed, then it lays down by the small of my back. I’ve googled it and found story’s of demons and ghost cats, there have been some nights I was scared to go to bed, I have been hoping for a sensible explanation and now I feel a bit silly. I’ll be catching up on some sleep tonight, thank you…

    1. I’ve got ghost cats too! It feels like a cat or sometimes 2 jumping on my bed, one walks up the bed & kneads the pillow. I have an actual cat, so this gets really confusing! I’ll reach out for my real cat & there’s nothing there, I often turn my light on to check. It doesn’t freak me out as much as it used to, it only happens after I switch my light off to sleep. Hypnagogic hallucination makes much more sense than being haunted!

    1. You should look up Hypnopompic hallucinations. I have the same thing as you and it happens just about every night to me for the last 4 years. It’s categorized with sleeping disorders. My psychiatrist just diagnosed me and put me on a sleeping pill that prevents me from having dreams that trigger PTSD and also the Hypnopompic hallucinations. I hope this helps😊

  21. I’m 25 and this has always been worse when I’m pregnant. I’m now 14 weeks pregnant and am having this 2-3 times a week now. I’ll jump out of bed thinking the ceiling is collapsing, or the dresser had fallen on my two year old son in his bed (he sleeps in my room) I’ve hurled my body over him because I believed the roof was falling on us. one night I began to choke my dog because I believed it was a wolf attacking me and snapped out of it when she whimpered. I felt horrible. It’s absolutely atrocious to live with and I believe it is worse when I’m stressed.

    1. The event with your dog can be classified as VBS (violent behaviour during sleep) and it’s more dangerous than simply hallucinations. You should definitely check with a professional. Parasomnia can potentially be dangerous to you or those around you.

      Stay safe.

  22. I see skeletons, clowns, animals & geometric shapes in a neon blue outline when I’m waking up. Happens on nights I’m stressed or having anxiety.

    I can get up use the bathroom and they are still there when I walk back through my room. They don’t follow me out of the room. Sometimes it’s the middle of the night and I go back to sleep but other times I’m up and starting my day. I just find it disconcerting that I can be up and they don’t disappear immediately.

    I’ve had a couple of times seen adult size demonic creatures. It’s awful.

  23. I have been suffering from sleep paralysis for 5 years now, maybe 6. It comes and goes sometimes be couple months then boom they always come back, most I’ve had one night is 3. I always see a shadow figure. the old lady and Hatman. and some kind black cloud-like energy. I think it’s spiritual least feels like it to me I can sense they are evil and I see them plan as the day upon waking I thought I was losing it pray usually helps and if u call on god they will disappear. I think they feed off our fear.

  24. I’m now 35 years old an I started to get this from 2005, I’m experiencing it everyday day in the night’s, or anytime when I fall asleep.
    It’ll be like I’m in different world while sleeping. I had experienced in Train, subway and long distance buses.
    Do anyone got this in any specific time..
    For me it happens maximum at 3am to 4.30am and same in the afternoon 3.to 4pm.

    And also anyone find hair in their food whenever or wherever you eat.

    1. HEY!! why do you ask about the hair in food?? I have these hallucinations but a few weeks ago I found a long hair in something I was eating. Okay that’s fine. Well less than a week later I open a chip bag and find yet another strand of hair! Both times by my mouth. Both times two different color hair. I thought that was so weird! Why do you ask??

  25. My night terrors began about 10 years ago. I have screamed out in my sleep “Who is There?” many times. I have seen people in my room…not creepy but dead people like ghosts. They are watching me sleep. The worst ones are when I feel like I am in complete darkness and can’t get out. I have knocked over lights and curtains by the bed. I have been on hands and knees looking for the door and light switch. Last night was the worst and it scared me. I turned over the night table and was pushing and pulling. Table went from upright to on its top with all the contents of two drawers on the floor. I believe I did all of this from the bed. If I was in the floor, it would have landed on my feet. I got out of bed and made my way to the light without stepping on a single item. This did shake me up.

  26. I am now 69 years old and I have been seeing people and thongs in the dark since about age 3-4. I remember then every night in pitch dark lying on my back in my coat awaiting to hear the usual noises of footsteps and doors opening coming from different areas of my house. I then lived with my parents on the first floor of a two storey house. So the first thing that I used to hear was to front door at the bottom of the stairs opening and closing followed by noise of footsteps moving up the stairs and successively noise of a second door opening at the top of the stairs. I next used to hear footsteps coming towards the bedroom that I was then sharing with my parents shortly to be followed by short dark very hairy figures crossing from either side of the room, I also remember then that as I stood lying on my back at the slightest movement of my body I used to hear several high pitched shrieky noises as if someone or something was being crushed under me as I moved. These nightly visions stopped at about age 4-5 but to this very day I have on and off continued to wake up in the middle of the night and see people another thing. I have by now got used to these occurrences and except to the initial shock often making me sit up in bed or even get out from bed usually soon after I am back asleep.

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