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.

1,574 thoughts on “Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night”

  1. I see spiders a couple of times a week, I wake up to my husband saying no hunny there are no spiders, every time, I say oh yes I see them, right there and I still see them and then I realize I’m awake. It’s so real. We don’t look for them anymore. Just happened a few minutes ago, a herd of spiders crawling over my clothes rack, out of sight. I’m up for the rest of the evening now. blah!!!

  2. I often have auditory experiences, never visual. That happened this morning, and it was terrifying. It seems a lot of people see bugs/insects/animals. Mine was completely different, in that I saw several pairs of eyes staring at me. I couldn’t see anything other than about 20-30 pairs of floating/slightly glowing eyes. I think it has to be the sleep deprivation and lack of good nutrition. It’s been a transitional phase, and my goodness, it’s starting to take its toll. I had been feeling off anyway, and had resolved to adjust my sleep schedule and prioritize good nutrition. Seems I was on the right track.

  3. As a teenager I experienced something similar, when I would close my eyes I would see all different sized circles that would get bigger and move towards me, I would have to open my eyes quickly for it to go away.
    This went on for a couple of years, most nights, it was terrifying, as the circles were of a threatening nature like they were going to harm me if they got too close so I would always open my eyes before this. It would take between 1 -3 hours to eventually get to sleep, also one night was what felt like two hands on my feet that woke me, I thought it was my sibling messing around but the whole house was asleep. I haven’t experienced any of this again as an adult but think about it often.

  4. Every night when I went to bed, I would suddenly see spiders or beetles crawling across the ceiling. They would walk towards me, and stop right above my head. The fear of that giant bug dropping on me caused me to jump out of bed and run. I would stop in the living room, my heart beating out of my chest. I tried sleep medication, hot lavender baths before bedtime, more exercise during the day, warm milk before bed. Still each night the bugs would come. I finally asked for help. I asked my doctor. He said it is sleep hallucinations. He told me to sleep with a small flashlight.
    When you see the bugs, shine a light on them, and they will disappear. I did, and they did disappear. I did this every time it happened, and they went away. Until they went away altogether.

  5. 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.

  6. I get this too, but sometimes I wake up and actually find spiders. Last night I heard some scary voice, thought I saw something in my cupboard, something in curtains then when I finally turned the light on, a small black spider was on my ceiling.

    Had it before where I see these crazy things and found a spider in my bed (hadn’t touched me yet, so didnt stimulate my senses that way)

  7. I see spiders too. Sometimes I see weird shapes that I can’t explain.

    I’m not scared of spiders (I love them) but the first time I saw one I was shocked. Mine are the size of a small dog. The weirdest part is that my eyes track them as they move and then they just hide behind something or disappear slowly.

    The craziest experience was when there was one (a shape) right in front of my face. I woke up and then, like it got a shock, it flew away to the wall and disappeared. It felt like I was being watched. That was frightening.

    I’m so used to them now that I talk to them. I usually ask them what they want but I’ve never received any communication from them which makes it seem like a hallucination. Kind of thankful for that.

    1. I was sleepy very earlier than usual. I usually go to bed at 3 or 4am because it’s hard for me to fall asleep. Tonight I got sleepy randomly at 9pm. I was trying to doze off and I vividly heard a woman clear as day speaking in my ear. No woman was around, I was just laying in my bed, but I was falling asleep. I fall asleep waking up multiple times, tossing and turning. It was just intended to be a nap but I fully woke up 4 hours later. When I woke up I saw a spider. It was cream colored and very detailed. I jumped and was moving around trying to push the spider away. I apparently said to my boyfriend help there is a spider and he looked around but there was no spider and it vanished in thin air! I know what I saw but I believe my dream was somehow coming to life like my eyes were open and I was still somehow asleep because I didn’t really understand what had happened. Nothing like this has happened to me before…I was scared and I’ve been very stressed out lately. Anxiety attacks that have progressively gotten worse along with an underlying medical condition that my insurance wouldn’t cover to diagnose properly. I feel like I was going crazy, but I know I’m not. Things have just felt very off and its hard not knowing what’s going on with your own body. I searched it up and it sounds a lot like sleep hallucinations, but I’m unsure if it’s that or another mental illness slowly creeping up on me. Only having this happen upon falling asleep or waking up points in the direction of some sort of dream-like state in my opinion. Should I seek medical help? I’m pretty embarrassed that I will sound whacko because no one seems to believe me about medical issues until something is for sure found. If I told someone, I’m sure they would invalidate the way I’m feeling or deem me out to be crazy, when this has never happened before, so it’s odd/seemingly random.

  8. I ended up here as I saw a square red light flashing above me when I was in bed a few weeks ago, and more recently I saw little man walking across my lounge as I had gone to sleep in there (the only reason I knew this wasn’t ‘real’ was because it was dark whereas when I saw the ‘man’, the room appeared lighter). I also remember seeing a street scene when waking up where my door should have been (as if I was looking out a window), and this was accompanied by a ‘whooshing’ sound and the scene spun round and round, getting smaller and smaller until it disappeared…. The article was very informative and the comments are also really reassuring that other people experience similar things.

  9. I usually have sleep paralysis when lying on my back. Or sometimes I have a tingly feeling throughout my body letting me know I’m going into one and I shut it out. However, before waking up a few hours ago I felt the tingly sensation but ignored it. Then in my dream someone was staring at me upside down, no idea who it was just staring. So I thought I woke up but the face was still there, watching me. Closed my eyes again, thinking I’m going nuts or stuck in dreamland but I knew I was awake. It weren’t until I shifted my position my eyes focused and I was staring at the bottom of my curtains. Not been back to sleep since.

  10. It’s really surprising to see how little auditory hallucinations people have had in these comments, those are all I have and I never see things.

  11. Sebastian Nielsen

    I have these hallucinations every night, all shapes, people, cats and bugs. when i was a kid, i had one night where i was feeling very scared for no reason. so i hid under my blanket and when i looked over my blanket i see 3 dogs staring at me, and barking aggressively and i didn’t know what to do cause they were right beside my bed, and at that time i didn’t have any dogs in my room ever. Now i can’t fall asleep anymore on a normal school day i get somewhere around 4-3 hours of sleep. Im in 9th grade, and i got tests coming up and exams. I don’t know what to do, if i told my parents that i think i have hypnagogic hallucinations they would just laugh at me and say “you’re just watching too many horror movies” even tho i haven’t watched one for 2 years.

    1. I’m sorry you’re going through that, and that they are not taking you seriously. I hope that at this point you’ve already overcome that fear/difficulty of sleeping. To be honest, with time I started being aware that everything “weird” I’m seeing might be a sleep hallucination, so that calmed me down, I just wait for it to disappear and it goes away. Thing is, the worse our sleeping pattern is, or the more stressed or anxious we are, the more hallucinations we have. So that’s a cycle… Hope you were able to break!
      Ps: I actually stopped watching movies with jumpscares because they seemed to increase the hallucinations

  12. I consistently have these sleep hallucinations pretty much every night. Mine seem to wake me up as well as occur before I sleep. It’s usually animals or bugs that I see but very rarely it’s shadow figures moving around my house. When I go to investigate or spend long enough looking at them it feels like I wake up and realise nothing was ever there. I was an extremely heavy sleepwalker as a child so there may be some correlation with that.

  13. I have woken a few times in the last month, seeing strange writing on the walls of my bedroom. The first time, I was frightened and closed my eyes telling myself it isn’t real, so back to sleep. The last time it happened I really tried to read it and it was like hieroglyphics or some kind of ancient language. It stayed on my walls for quite some time. I am not afraid of it anymore, but nonetheless it is creepy and shouldn’t be happening.

    1. This is exactly what I see. I spent so much time trying to read it off of my ceiling last night I’m exhausted today.😃. I could only make out a few words but it’s all Scribbly and gets smaller as it fades away. It’s so bizarre.it def is much better then the spiders & bugs for sure! The spiders fade quickly so of course they look like they are running around. I often think my doorbells ringing as I’m waking up or I hear gunshots outside. Ty for sharing – I know I’m not crazy now

  14. This article was actually so helpful! I have never had stress or anxiety in my fully 34 years, however I lost my Mum 5 years ago when my baby was 2 weeks, never grieved, then lost my Dad this year. Add to the fact I worked all through the pandemic on intensive care, to then suddenly change to working from home in a new role, which was a shock to the system. I have since developed stress and anxiety which is new to me as it is, but started jumping out of bed on quite a few occasions seeing spiders that apparently aren’t there (huge ones!) but feel so real in the moment.. have found myself moving furniture just to double check before my brain decides to make me think rationally that it probably wasn’t there. Very new and very bizarre. Am putting it down to the stress I have been under. Hopefully once less stressed it can stop happening. X

  15. I have hallucinations upon waking. I see shadow spiders crawling around the bedroom walls and ceiling. sometimes I think the spiders are jumping on me. I often jump up (waking my husband) and tell him there are spiders on my bed or around me. I am 100% convinced they are there. I am not one to believe in ghosts, but could they be supernatural, demon-like, and harmful? I am scared when I get up and the experience stays with me. I think about how weird it is to be seeing spiders my husband cannot see. it has been happening for about 4-5 years now-not every night but on a monthly basis. I can go a few weeks with not seeing the spiders and then once again I’m popping out of bed, turning on the light, waking hubby, and wanting him to kill a spider that doesn’t exist.

    1. I also wake up ‘seeing’ spiders on the wall or ceiling at times. It’s happened three times in the last week. It used to happen quite a lot, but hadn’t for several years until this week. I jump out of bed, heart pounding, then wonder if it’s real as I become more awake. I stare at the ‘spiders’ until they vanish. Honestly, just typing this I think I sound crazy!

      1. Same happens to me! I just woke up 20 minutes ago seeing a big spider shadow coming down my wall. I’ve searched everywhere in my room. It was a big shadow then disappeared…I’m so uncomfortable. I’m really hoping it’s a dream cause scary either way but really I’m moving!

  16. Extreme arachnophobia coupled with major long distance move stress and an actual infestation in new house has me having these once rare hallucinations frequently through the night. It’s debilitating. I’m so glad I’m not alone!
    I just posted a sign on my ceiling that says “GO BACK TO SLEEP, ITS NOT REAL”. We’ll see how that goes.

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