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.

1,493 thoughts on “Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night”

  1. Took a nap today and had a waking hallucination of a huge spider …. it looked so real and scary I moved everything in my room just checking it had not scurried somewhere….. search for “waking hallucinations + spiders” brought me to this page. A few years back, upon waking, I also saw a huge spider shadow figure. Not sure what this means but at least I’m not alone.

  2. Hi! I have been diagnosed with narcolepsy with cataplexy, I’m 43 and have had hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations for as long as I can remember, in fact my first memories are of sleep paralysis, prior to being able to talk. Early in life, I remember scaring my mother by telling her to “turn the tv off” while napping, only to have her say that it wasn’t on I followed with “OK tell the people to go home“. I remember she ran into my room and looked terrified at that point I wasn’t scared but once I saw her face I was. What followed was a series of decades wherein I accepted a set of strange phenomena as typical only to find out that my “fainting spells” were actually cataplectic incidents and while having severe narcolepsy is a total bummer it’s better to have a name for it other than thinking I just had wicked depression and godawful nightmares and random hallucinations,

  3. Nancy Margulies

    Thanks to each of you for sharing your experiences. I was recently told I might have a serious, fatal, form of dementia, “Lewy Body Dementia” and my hallucinations were sited as a symptom. I was very concerned but could not reach the doctor to ask questions. Now I think it just might be my use of marijuana to help me sleep. I awaken and see spiders I know are not real, once saw a dog turn into a cat, my husband’s face looked like a zombie, and to top it all off, I once saw Stokley Carmichael in our bed. I know its not real, but the dark shadowy figures often frighten me a lot. Now if I need to get up at night I keep my eyes down and don’t look around. I was frightened at night as a child, and for good reason, but now I wonder if that fear is also contributing to my visions as night.

  4. Suzanne Riggs

    I have had both along with auditory, my current I was waking from a bad dream yelling for help while I awake I turned my head and saw three women looking at me, I continued asking them for help before I was completely awake. I can fully describe them and the dream, it’s so strange how you can visual someone you have never seen before. Happy to read that I’m not alone, it’s kinda scary. I had one incident of sleep paralysis so they say and it was the most horrible experience. I literally felt my body being flung across the room, it was so frightening

  5. Just woke up and had to google, came across this website, and feel better knowing I’m not the only one who experiences these events. Thank you

  6. I constantly see spiders. All different kinds and sizes. Either hanging from a web, on my pillow etc. I jolt up from the bed and sometimes hurt my husband with how frantic I am. It takes a few seconds to realize it’s not real but it’s getting annoying at this point.

  7. How come no one has gotten a security camera and put them in your ROOM! Something just might stop knowing it’s being observed. If not at least you will have your questions answered, if its real or not, when did it show up? When you were just waking up, or going to sleep. Is it real? Can the cameras see it or them. Can it catch the movement or see what kind of ANIMAL it is or PEOPLE there are. From where did it come from? Through THE for, the door, the wall, window, ceiling? Has it or they ever damaged anything doing so. If it’s gotten into bed with you. Did you see how it got in? Did the bedspread or sheets move? Hopefully you will get your answers! Which should be nothing. Showing your brain it’s being lied to you. Maybe that will be enough to stop them all-knowing they or them or it. Do not exist in real life. If it starts up again. Like a subliminal message. Play the video back and keep staring nothing is there. Never WAS never WILL be! Then shut the lights off ask the white lights of God’s angles to wrap you in their folds to protect you. Then sleep peacefully, knowing God’s army is protecting you! Good luck

  8. My husband has recently been having hallucinations of seeing and not knowing where he is when been woken up.

  9. Well thankfully I don’t see people or animals like some of these reports. At night when I awake, I do see geometric shapes on the blinds and frequently the entire room walls, ceiling, and doors look like they are covered with fluffy cotton or clouds. When I switch on the bedside lamp all goes away. I am going to try the sleep mask to see if it helps. Does not scare me but is annoying and makes me wonder what is going on in my brain. I have asked several family members if they have experienced anything like it and no just dreams or nightmares except one family member who is genius level intelligent and won a national math award in college. She has the fluffy clouds experiences. She is my great-niece so maybe her intelligence came from me. Broo-ha-ha. 😂

    1. So thankful for your answer. I am 81 and an RN. I see the same thing you mentioned. I usually turn the lights on a while and it helps. It only happens once or so a week and not every night. I thought it was from my brain through my optic nerve but my eye doctor said it was a hallucination probably.
      I was glad to know someone else has had this. Once years ago, I saw red dots during the daytime and checked it out on the computer and there is a red dot group which I thought it so amusing. I didn’t join but this one puzzled me. I always need an answer. Also even wondered if this is all the radio waves and energy that are in our solar system.

  10. I have had reoccurring nightmares about, Zombies & People after me with guns. I felt/feel i do have a fear of being murdered. I have tried to analyze my dreams. They’re quite bizarre always, however, i have one specific memory of a very creepy dream, i must have been around 3or4. I’ve also had night terrors as an adult, flying out of my sleep startling other around. I was scared to death i felt like a child. But, I have the significant truth that there is a presence in this house. Tod9was my first day experiencing the dark blanket of a shadow leaving my closet fleeting across my peripheral just like the article on google said, the sheer left swaying as if gusted by wind then my eye veering towards the bathroom across the hall with the bathroom door shutting on its own like it got busted by me awaking and snuck out of the room. The reason i say i have proof is because i have recorded bright orbs and moving objects in the house. I’m not sure what the black shadow is but believe the orbs are my angels and or spirits.

  11. I’ve recently experienced seeing skeletons in the shape of humans and animals/dragons upon waking from bad dreams at night. They are white, glowing in the dark all around my room and then they tip over and drop down one by one. The bad dreams vary. I am currently feeling stress/anxiety in my daily life, experiencing life-changing situations, therefore I don’t sleep well at night.

  12. I believe I’ve been having this as well. Usually, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and it will happen to me as I try to fall back asleep. I’ve had an old woman crawl up into my face screaming, a man tries to strangle me, a face comes out of my bed repeating the word “run” over and over again, etc. I’m usually paralyzed when this happens, but the other day I had one after waking up from a disturbing nightmare and I could move. I saw a woman holding a child for a few seconds until I blinked them away. I’m glad I’m not the only one this happens to, but also sorry anyone else has to deal with that. When it happens I’m usually too scared to attempt sleep again and stay up the rest of the night. It’s debilitating.

  13. I came to see all of these posts after doing a bit of internet searching. I see colors at night when I am awake and usually when i start to settle and get comfortable. I see blue, fuchsia or green kind of orbs that I can see with my eyes open and my eyes closed. I have never gotten any diagnosis or talked to anyone other than my husband about my visual experiences. I always thought that they had to do with some kind of spiritual experience. Now I come to find out that what I go through has a clinical name. I do not have a problem falling asleep and staying asleep. I do know that I suffer from anxiety and I have gone through depression. I am well now and look forward to a great future. I am aware of what my anxiety can do if I do not have it on check on a daily basis.
    I started seeing these orbs when I was pregnant with my daughter. She is now 13 years old and she is now saying she sees shapes of circles and triangles or squares. She also has visions of scary things that sometimes she says makes no sense. She has always had a hard time falling asleep as a baby and still has a hard time falling asleep now. She suffers from anxiety and she was diagnosed with ADHD. Last night, she said that she saw green circles hovering over in her bedroom. I will have to share this information with her Neurologist. I am having a Neurodevelopmental assessment done in July to rule out Autism. I do not know if the hallucinations have anything to do with her sleep, ADHD or Autism. I would love to see more research done on this topic.
    Could it be Synesthesia? People with autism may be more likely than others to have synesthesia, a condition in which people experience a mixing of their senses, such as hearing tastes and shapes, and seeing numbers in colors, a new study from Europe suggests.

  14. So glad I’m not the only one.
    2 years ago I woke up to see a man in a bowler hat stood at my door, I screamed and he didn’t move, he was just stood there, so I turned the light on and he was gone.
    I spent the rest of the night laid awake terrified. I told my dad the next morning and he convinced me it was a ghost and that because I screamed I scared him away and that I shouldn’t be scared.
    Anyway, after that experience I have them constantly, 2/3 nights a week, massive tarantulas running across my walls, flowers coming out my carpet, a robotic alien off this game I played stood on my bed over me, I could even feel the pressure of its legs next to me. Skeleton hands reaching for me, a dead woman hanging above my head (by far the most terrifying).
    It’s actually got to the point where it no longer scares me because I know they’re not real anymore. They’re always related to something I’ve seen or watched recently, so I’m avoiding anything horror-related now because they’re the least fun!

    The weirdest part about it all is that now it’s been 2 years I can control what I see, when I see a spider I can make it go where I want it to go, before it gradually disappears. Normally I’ll make it move in a certain direction to double-check it isn’t real. It sounds crazy but it works!

  15. Geez I’m so glad to read these posts. I’ve always thought I was a bit crazy! I used to have the same/Similar recurring nightmares about dinosaurs as a child. I used to have distortions when watching TV at night too. As I got older I felt like a nonphysical presence was in my room and I hated the dark. As I got into my 30’s I then started to see spiders during the night, dangling directly above or near me. I’m now in my mid 40’s and the past year it’s mixed with spiders and a spider-like probe/robotic type thing that has electric blue light through it … my curiosity about these hallucinations brought me to this page. Not sure why spiders are significant but now I feel comforted by all the comments here.

  16. Since moving into a house my sister owns I have constantly had nightmares. It started off with just one or two a week, and then after just a few weeks I would be woken up 3-4 sometimes 5 times a night feeling like someone was blowing air right onto my face. It would stop for a few days/weeks then start up again from time to time. I also had a really weird experience when I was laying in bed just day dreaming, a bit tired but still awake, and a massive bolt of lightning hit my room but not vertically (from up high to low) it struck outside my house and I could see it pass over my head while I was laying on my back thinking wtf is going on!? I have read this may be “exploding head syndrome” but it’s only happened the one time and I was definitely awake. The whole room shook for a few seconds and I could do nothing but lay there thinking what the hell was that? And just weeks ago I was constantly in bed, and just as I feel asleep I heard a hissing in my ear which would wake me up straight away, then I felt like someone was grabbing my arms and throwing them up in the air to get my attention. And once the hissing and arm throwing settled down I’d just doze off and see flashes of someone three in the room, which woke me up straight away. I am partial to believing it’s a ghost/entity getting a laugh out of annoying the shit out of me, trying to scare me and not let me sleep. I say this, because my friend has lots of paranormal ghost gear, and once you see one, you cannot-Unsee it. My dog actually spotted one in his house, she comes with me when I visit my mate and my pug Lucy plays with his pug Tilly. Anyway, both sitting back watching movies and Lucy is sitting on my lap, turns and faces the wall behind the couch we are sitting on and begins growling, and then barking, she gets up, and runs into his kitchen. I was like sorry Brian, I’ll tell her to be quiet, she’s being silly. But he said no, let her do her thing. This is often when weird things happen in my house. Lucy was now sitting facing the corner of the kitchen where the two walls meet going nuts barking. My mate got out some electrical magnetic field thing that showed up immediately with what was the outline of a woman in a dress. He also got out his emf reader ( the one that lights up with up to 6 lights) all lights came on straight away. The device he had with the image showed up like a red/green kind of infrared picture. Anyway, I was still struggling to sleep so being a Christian person I thought a King James Bible on either side of bed on the bed tables, and a wooden crucifix and wore it that night. Slept like a baby, got up, toilet, coffee, shower, got ready for the day, and that’s when I felt around at my chest, the string holding the cross and the cross itself where gone… I checked everywhere, all I managed to find was the string had been cut and was lying under my bed, crucifix gone. The television turns off, but not off and on. So it may just be a fault. One night when watching American horror story, there was a reference made about “the room of tears” held where the pope and high up archbishops and priests reside, Vatican City. It said in that room there was a page that described in explicit detail the very nature and appearance in such detail that he could be identified. And seconds after that reference was made my smoke alarm went off.. scared the crap out of me! Immediately turned off the tv show, put normal tv on and thought I gotta go check if it’s just a flat battery or something? But no, battery still had months before it was due for a yearly change over. I also felt a chill go up my spine and felt like something bad is here. So went into every single room, turned on the lights, checked under everything, in all the drawers, cupboards. And nothing. Got to the last room convinced it was just a coincidence it happened seconds after the anti christ was mentioned. Oh, I also would say out aloud in the name of Jesus Christ if there is an evil presence be gone from this place! Now as I entered the last room I turned on the lights, and starting saying it again while checking the cupboards etc, at this exact time my phone in my pocket had unlocked the passcode and opened a YouTube video of someone laughing that was very sinister and creepy. As if to say I’m not going and you can’t make
    me. Now that scared me quite a bit too, hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight away. Now, I have NEVER believed in coincidences, I was hopeful this night I’d be proven wrong, but often things happen for a reason. Anyway, it was early morning 1am or so, I grabbed my dog and went for a walk to settle down a bit. Slept out on the couch that night, and have been doing so quite often. The last home occupants mucked around with Ouija boards and apparently my neighbours said they had no idea what they were doing. And these guys were real creeps from what I heard. Lived like animals, took drugs, bred dogs just to sell puppies for drugs, they would wash once a week, sometimes once a fortnight or less! They wouldn’t even buy toilet paper, but go outside. Upon moving in I actually found multiple women’s clothing mostly underwear and bras all hidden away. I was told they were perverse and would steal clothing from people’s clothesline’s and would even spy on them. That is just what the neighbours told me, but the state of the place before cleaning it up was terrible! And the smell, wee and poop just outside the windows and doors. I think they would have been easily manipulated by anything bad that came through that Ouija board. People think of exorcisms and super human strength and biting your own fingers off and speaking in 3 different voices at once means it a demonic possession. Yes, maybe very strong ones, but most are just as simple as tempting us to do something bad. Like steal something, think bad thought about hurting someone who you don’t get along with, pretty much anything to mislead you and keep you from being happy and living the way god wants us to. So next time you are concentrating on reading the morning paper and all of a sudden, maybe you get a thought of hmmm, is just love to punch my boss in the face, and I sure would love to cheat on my wife with the office secretary.. quite often, these are not your own thoughts. I am just hopeful that perhaps it is just a sleeping disorder, but I think it’s much more than that. Just hope whatever is here is friendly, or hopeful it is a deceased family or friend trying to help me.

  17. I often wake in the night and see people standing or hovering near me with big, caricature smiles. They disappear quickly. The night after my father died I saw him hovering in my room with a smile. Once I saw a lady bending over to touch me. Ghosts?

    1. That sent shivers down my spine dude!
      I often wake up in the middle of the night and see a figure hanging on the back of my bedroom door almost. The first few seconds are quite scary because I’m convinced there is someone there but after a short moment it seems to fade.

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