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

Research shows that fragmented sleep is associated with more hallucinations

In 2021, a team of researchers published an interesting study of sleep hallucinations (you can read it in full on nature.com).

Based on an online survey of 10,299 people, they found that poor sleep is associated with the occurrence of hallucinations – a point already confirmed by previous studies.

However, they further showed that fragmented sleep, i.e. regular wakings, is related to hallucinations. And that fragmented sleep is also related to the content, frequency, duration, and associated distress.

Interestingly then, people who had better sleep had less negative and less disruptive hallucinations when they did have them.

So the more you have them, the worse they might be. It seems to me to be a good motivation to tackle any factors you know that make you wake up more often in the night.

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.

1,619 thoughts on “Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night”

  1. Hi, I get these sometimes when I wake up. It is always people and in color. A few times I felt a tap on my shoulder but no one was there. It’s got to the point as I wake I will peep with one eye. My family think it’s funny and will ask if anyone was in the bedroom last night. Oh boy…

  2. I don’t know what to think or do. A few years ago this all started and it happens once in a while. I see either a black smokey ball mass floating to a black scribble floating mass to hearing voices and feeling things randomly. There have been a few times I woke up out of a dead sleep screaming and jumping out of the bed running and screaming in fear. This has been going on since 2019 off an on and my meds have not changed at all. Any ideas on what I should even do?

  3. Last night I slept on the settee downstairs, I was awoken by what felt was my dog trying to jump up on the settee, but she wasn’t there, it was 2am in the morning. I then noticed a red circular light on the ceiling it was a dull type of light and making circular motions, as I watched it was fading until eventually it disappeared totally.

  4. Glad I found this article. I had another episode of hallucination last night, at least they don’t happen very often! I don’t know if I was falling asleep or waking up as it happened around 1:30 AM and was in bed since 11:30. Anyway, yes, spiders in my bed my friends, the best feeling right? Saw one black spider, like 2 inches big, sort of coming out from under my pillow or myself, and then the whole colony comes out crawling, more than a dozen freaking spiders crawling heading for the side of the bed, and man was it SO REAL… By then I’m leaning on my elbow, and my partner wakes up with a flashlight on (lol, light sleeper), I said “gimme that”, held that flashlight and look again on the mattress and on its side, the floor… nothing… Wasn’t so scared though. Just went back to sleep…

    I had this happen before, not sure it was always spiders, but always some freakin bugs that’s for sure…

  5. I have been having hallucinations on and off for about 2 years whilst trying to get to sleep, normally it is just shapes of figures in the room and sometimes hands coming towards my face. I often wake in the night to see a faint figure in the room next to my bed but as I blink and move it instantly disappears. Last night though I woke sharply to see a little girl in a green dress holding a small doll at the side of my bed, I jumped up and moved my covers and then according to my girlfriend, screamed. This is because as I moved the covers the girl was still there for a second or two before disappearing. I have never had such a vivid vision and it took me some time to fall back to sleep.

  6. When I was a child like 5 or 6 I used to see wonderful shapes they were all pink and they would morph into all different kinds of things. I can describe them like pink bubbles. I was in the dark but there was light from my door being open. I used to love it And it would fascinate me. It doesn’t happen anymore at all.

  7. I get hallucinations while waking up sometimes. My favorite one from a few years ago, I saw a spider pulling a rubber ducky that was stuck in its web up the wall by my bed. I sat up and reached out to save the ducky from the web and when my fingers touched the wall, I woke up fully and the spider, web, and rubber ducky all vanished. My worst one was after my first baby was born. I saw a dark shadow man by my bed. Instantly I knew something was wrong with my baby. I jumped out of bed and practically flew to her crib. She had somehow gotten her swaddling over her head. She was fine, but it scared me. I got a different kind of swaddler after that, that zipped, so she couldn’t get it over her head by accident. I haven’t had any hallucinations for a while… until recently. I woke up and heard what I thought was my cat hissing at my dog. Both animals were not even on the same floor as my bedroom, let alone not in my bedroom. Early this morning, at around 5:55 am I was startled awake by a creepy, dark voice yelling “Yessss!!” in satisfaction. It scared me for some reason, so I decided to just get up. So here I am, researching if these sudden noises are my sleep hallucinations coming back. I guess so. I also talk in my sleep, and according to my boyfriend, say some pretty weird stuff.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top