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 thought 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 imagining events while falling asleep or waking up that are not 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.

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 hear sounds that are not real, perhaps listening to music or the radio at night will 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.

Generally though, you can see that 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.

1,111 thoughts on “Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night”

  1. For as long as I can remember I have suffered from sleep hallucinations. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to look into what was causing my vivid and often scary dreams. I live with my partner and on a frequent weekly basis I wake him up at night by thinking there is someone in our room. Sometimes I do not remember it when I wake up in the morning, and sometimes I wake myself up and realize what is happening. My father suffers from the same thing, so I think it’s genetic.

    When I was a kid (I’m now 25), my family and I went on a vacation and our rental house was nearby train tracks. My Dad woke my mom up in the middle of the night screaming, on all fours on the floor, thinking that a plane was bombing our house and telling her to get down and take cover. My mom tried to calm him down to let him know it was just the train going by making a loud noise that spooked him. She eventually got him to go back to sleep and he woke up the next morning not remembering what had happened.

    When I was a kid, I remember seeing geometrical colorful shapes floating around my childhood bedroom and wishing them to stop so I could go to sleep. I also suffered from sleepwalking, and peeing in weird places during my sleep.

    Recently, I was watching West World and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up terrified and on my apartment balcony thinking there was someone in my apartment trying to get me. I remember contemplating jumping off the 2nd floor balcony to try to get away from the intruder. The reason I woke up is that I saw my cat crying through the balcony door (it has a large glass window on it) trying to get to me. I thought to myself I can’t leave her behind but I’m too scared to open the door. My heart was racing so fast. Once I saw my cat’s face I realized I was dreaming and I calmed myself down and went back inside.

    Now on a weekly basic I wake my partner up terrified that someone is in our bedroom. From someone standing in the closet, or in our bathroom or walking up to my bedside trying to get me. The only thing that seems to help is him turning on the lights and telling me it’s just a dream.

    These hallucinations seem so real. They do not affect my full nights’ sleep, as I wake up in the morning feeling rested. However, they affect my partners and I do not know how to stop my sleep hallucinations.

    Any tips?

  2. Awhile I watched the movies of the secrets of the Dead Sea scrolls for 50 minutes at night but the light was on. I suddenly fell asleep on the couch in the living room. I woke up slowly and saw black flies right there clearly. They stayed there for seconds and gone. I was not scared. Something tries to tell me. I did not know what. Do you know something I should know of? Thank you!

  3. I’ve been figure out what’s going on. Again if I sleep then I see again this figure. Something like a woman with curly hair on the shadow after waking up of some bad dreams, not just once but twice. Last time it was not too close, but the second time I think she comes closer after I woke up. But all I know it is just my hallucinations or some kind of I just overthinking about something else.

  4. I had a strange experience happen while in the process of just going to bed with my husband on the side. I had closed my eyes and in a bit opened them to see a white see threw figure of a man in a suit looking over me. I really opened my eyes in shock and realized it was what I was seeing as I looked to find detail clues for a face with none found, just the white image of a man in a suit…all white. I felt my heart race and started screaming in fear and it woke my husband whom I responded and told him what happen. He said it must have been a dream and I told him I was not asleep taking a while to settle down. The next morning I felt normal like nothing had happened. I have never scene anything like that. I was extremely scared to the point my heart was beating extremely fast. Any thoughts as to if it was a real …it sure seamed real. I screamed in fear like it was.

  5. I have so many that I can’t remember them all.
    But, the ones that really scared me, is when I was a young girl sharing a bedroom with three other sisters. One of my sisters always plays the radio throughout the night with a night light. I was sleeping on the top bunk and I woke up. I couldn’t move. I thought I was up and aware of my surroundings. I even can hear the music playing. I just couldn’t move nor speak. Suddenly. I hear this, what I believe a heavy demonic breathing becoming louder as It gets closer and closer to me. When the sound became close enough. I can feel the presence pulling my blanket down and off of me. I couldn’t move nor could I talk. I was trying to scream and call for my older sisters but just couldn’t. I remember I just gather all my strength and will power and jump up out of it.
    I was scared out of my mind. My three sisters were still asleep. The music on the radio was still playing. Like nothing ever happened.

    Since then, I had many similar experiences during childhood and young adult.
    But the next one is classified as “WEIRD”

    Another experience is when I am an adult in my thirties. I never visit Hawaii before relocating there back In July of 2000. I was sleeping on the sofa in the living room with the television on. And I was awoken by something on tv. As I open my eyes. I saw a swarm of flies in the corner up by the ceiling. I thought I was sleeping. So I closed my eyes again. But soon realized I am not sleeping and open my eyes up again and there it is a swarm of flies in the corner of the ceiling. I stared at it for a few seconds. Thinking wow, Hawaii has a major flies problem. Uncomfortable, frighten and gross out. I’ve jumped up to turn the lights on. When I do so, it was completely gone. Not a fly flying. Gone, gone, gone. I thought that was weird. I even flicker the lights on and off a few times to see if it will come back. But nope never came back. So, I stayed up watching a tv program until it watch me.

    Another memorable experience I had recently is when I thought I heard something or someone. A sound that I jump me out of my bed standing on my two legs straight and tall. Wondering what the hell is that?. Oh I live In Brooklyn New York now. But I am sure it was in my room like someone standing over me. I can’t remember if they shouted my name or what. But it scared the crap out of me.
    Another time at my apartment in Brooklyn. I have another episode of being awake and can’t move nor talk and it always feels like this evil presence is there.
    I’ve been having so many different type episodes that I became immune to it.

    Keep in mind as a child and young adult. The only medications I was on were Asthma medications. I was not having an Asthma attack nor recovering from an Asthma attack when these episodes were taking place.
    I am currently taking the same Asthma medication that I was taking when I was a child. From my understanding. During and after an Asthma attack. The lack of oxygen to your brain can affect your brain function. And, taking steroids for Asthma can cause insomnia which is known to be a side effect.

    Soooooo. Yeeaah. I guess mental illness is ruled out.

  6. I Woke up this morning around 5-6 o’clock and I was laying on my back and when I looked down at the end of my bed I saw a big black bear staring at me with bright green eyes and it was breathing really heavy and when I tried touching it I blinked and it disappeared. can someone please tell me what happened? it really freaked me out.

  7. Same, I see geometric shapes if I wake in the middle of the night. They will float and interact with the walls and ceiling. Never seen two of the same kind. They’re usually stunning, bright colors. Often of a honeycomb shape, but they’ve taken on other organic type shapes. They never stay still. It seems so ungodly real it’s frightening. I got really bad after my mom died. I wasn’t sleeping well and my brain had trouble turning off due to stress. I’m glad I’m not alone.

  8. Whenever I try to sleep I cannot, I close my eyes cuz I see an image of a man ghost sitting on a chair and saying something scary to me. It’s probably cuz of all the scary movies I have watched. Like the conjuring and all. I just Can’t get rid of those scary ghost images after watching a scary movie and then those images pop up in my head and even sleeping with turning the light on doesn’t help. I was earlier diagnosed with anxiety issues. But that was situational. Idk y these scary images dont leave my mind. It’s like they r stuck there. And it becomes so scary sometimes that I can’t sleep alone and have to sleep with a parent to feel safe.

  9. I started having sleep paralysis last year and they began to happen more and more. They don’t happen often lately.
    Now I have noticed for example and what led me to this page was me lying in bed awake texting someone when out of nowhere… I heard the voice of a female friend of mines mother saying something that I can’t remember now but I know it was my friend’s mom and when I looked up I almost thought I saw a black silhouette shape from the direction the voice came from but both vanished almost immediately

  10. This feels really weird after years of keeping silent about this! I mentioned it to my son last year only to find that he is experiencing the same thing!! When I was little I used to always hear noises and often woke thinking the kitchen cupboards had come off the walls as the sound of breaking plates was so loud and so real yet when I went downstairs nothing always baffled me!! As I have gotten older the one that happens most and I have figured out that it always seems to happen when I’m overtired is I’ll have been in bed say 5 minutes and it really and truly feels like I’m awake then all of a sudden I’ll shoot up and start flying sort of like superman but super fast which is pretty good but also scary as my bedroom is say a normal size and I’m like 5ft 2 and flying round and round at high speed trying to dodge a ceiling fan and the bed is super tricky and I go faster and faster as it goes on and I’m screaming out for my husband like proper yelling his name as I just want him to help but nothing it’s so annoying as I am totally convinced it’s real at the time I ask him if he heard me shouting him n he always says I didn’t!! On rare occasions, I even get to fly outside round my village which is better as a lot more space .. omg I sound like a nutter and I promise you I’ve never taken drugs and I rarely have alcohol but to actually find out it’s nothing serious is such a relief. Thanks

  11. It started off happening once every few months then recently it started happening almost every night while I’m trying to sleep. I see the silhouette of bugs crawling across my wall it freaks me out I jump out of bed to turn my light on or use my phone to see if I’m actually seeing them but they are not there.

    1. It’s been happening to me as well – I see 5 dots move in unison and i am not able to figure out what they are? I am freaking out and wondering if my mind is going sick or something? How do I even explain to a doctor what’s happening? Any insight is helpful. THanks
      Ruby

  12. So we have just got a new puppy, I was asleep in the spare room and had my clothes bundled up on the floor. As I have just started waking up to him crying it looked like he was curled up in the clothes as I open my eyes and heard he was still down stairs I continued to see something move on my clothes so turned the light on my phone on and pointed it at the clothes and nothing is there. It felt so life like and really has startled me. Is this normal?

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