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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- 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.
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.
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.
I awake from a bad dream which I have frequently and see 3-D geometric shapes or patterns floating above me. I can blink and blink and they are still there. Sometimes it is very frightening and other times I just close my eyes, find my husband’s hand under the covers and go back to sleep. I was very surprised to hear that others experience this.
Most of my bad dreams are right after I fall asleep according to my husband. He says sometimes within minutes of falling asleep I begin to murmur and/or holler. I enjoyed reading this article.
I have been experiencing sleep paralysis since my 20’s. I am now 71. It feels like there is an evil presence and I can’t move, sometimes it is pressing down on me but I have got stronger and recite The Lord’s Prayer in my head, even though it feels like I’m shouting it out. I wake up and feel relieved but very scared still.
Once I heard such horrible grunting in my ear and felt like I was being licked. When I woke I had the sensation of being licked still !!!
More recently I have felt and heard little animal like things climbing up onto my bed and making grunting noises. I’m not so scared though. They grunt right in my face and I try to make a noise to scare them away. Now I try to make some kind of contact with them. The other night I was asleep and I knew they were climbing up my bed and I tried to touch one. When I did it felt squelchy not wet like a toad but I felt as if it was letting me touch it.
I wouldn’t dare tell anyone this. I am a very intelligent person who has a stable life with lots of friends and a loving family. I don’t do drugs apart from prescription, mainly painkillers, Please don’t go down the opiate road. I only have a couple of drinks a week.
I wish I could find an answer. I see what all the professionals say but I think there’s more to it
Last night I had a terrifying hallucination upon waking up from a nightmare in the middle of the night. I saw a caveman in the area where my computer desk is and there was also a mangy mean-looking fox on a table. I kept staring at them to see if they were moving, but I think they were more like an exhibit at a museum. When I finally got the courage to get out of bed, I moved closer and the fox on the table turned out to be my computer chair which had my robe draped over it and the caveman disappeared into the back wall. I turned on the light and tried to go back to bed with the light on, but I couldn’t.
How are my cats and dog seeing or hearing the same hallucination I am, if it’s supposed to be a hallucination? Sometimes my husband comes home from work and finds me, the three cats and a dog intently looking for what is making the most obnoxious sound or flickers of light. He know this is what I’m doing and what the animals are doing. Sometimes it’s just the animals doing it because I just don’t have the strength to care anymore. I’m past the point of thinking it’s hallucinations or even a mental break on my part although sometimes it makes me feel like I’m about to break, but life is always stranger than fiction.
Seen so many. I have insomnia. Just recently experienced a floating moving spider in the air upon waking. It’s usually not close to me but distant as if on the wall, I’m used to it so it’s not as frightening. The dim light in the room helps some or just closing my eyes and ignore. If I keep my eyes open it dims and floats away. Wherever my eyes turn is where I see it move. I’ve seen other objects most of them moving. Some with color. Even a train. When I didn’t know what they were I was very scary. I had a alot when I was on anti-spasmodic anxiety medication and the feeling was scary actually hearing and sensing something coming for me in the night, sometimes not being able to move in paralysis. Needless to say, I came off the meds.
Thank you for the explanation. I had sleep hallucinations: seeing people, monkeys, cats and spiders at night. (3 months ago).
I thought it was due to the depression I suffered. I ended up in ICU. I’m much better now. I see people once in a while. But spiders all the time.
At first it was scary. Now I just ignore them. Once I switch my phone torch they disappear.
Thanks for sharing.
Hi, I have experienced waking and hallucinating to be startled by big black spiders crawling up the wall…it seemed that real I would jump out of bed and switch the light on and check for the spiders to find nothing. It worried me as it happened quite often but has eased and I do believe it was down to Stress. I have a night light which I think helps as I haven’t had a hallucination in a while which is such a relief.
I’ve started to see figures of a man standing over my partner when I wake in the night – quite disturbing.
When I am sleeping, I don’t know if this weird experience is real or not.
It’s almost like I’m awake but I’m clearly not because this action is unrealistic.
When I am sleeping I almost get a numb tingly feeling all throughout my body. I can breathe but it’s like a massive weight is on me and I just feel like a dead weight. Then it’s like I get lifted over my body or bed I don’t really know and I levitate. My body seriously just glides over the blankets and I get drifted on to the ground. But then I don’t know how I get back in my bed. But the weird thing is, I remember getting off the floor and going to my bed and I also remember hanging off the bed.
I’m writing this at 5am as I’m terrified to go back to sleep. I experience more auditory hallucinations and this morning I woke up to a man’s voice and then a child’s voice speaking clearly in the room next to me. We’ve just moved into a new house, but I’ve had this in previous properties. Someone advised me to put protection crystals above my doorways (black tourmaline and selenite) and cleanse the house. I’ve done this before and it’s worked, and completely stopped these hallucinations. I need to do this in my new house.
In a previous house, during lockdown 1, I saw a man in a white protective quarantine suit and a covid mask at the end of my bed, and I could hear his breathing. I closed my eyes and opened them again, and he was still there. It was terrifying. Then 3 days later, my mum was taken to hospital with covid (she’s fine now though luckily). I honestly do believe some of these experiences can be spiritual, but it doesn’t make them any less terrifying.
I just started seeing an insect running up my wall into the air vent a few weeks ago. It only happens when I first wake up very early in the morning. It does not really look real because it’s too cloudy or misty looking, like it’s not fully in this dimension. It is always running away from me as soon as I wake up and see it. It always runs into the air vent. It looks similar to a centipede, but more like a spirit than a physical insect. I have a very close relationship with God and I do not use drugs or alcohol, not even caffeine or tobacco. After it happened today though I began to wonder what this means so I did a google search and found out it’s pretty common and harmless. Thank you for explaining it. Thank the good Lord for giving us doctors!
Thank you for this article
I experienced something awful two nights ago in my bedroom. It was around 2am and for some reason, I sat bolt upright in my bed. I saw what really did look like a small old lady with whiteish hair. She was coming towards me. I screamed and screamed. I was so scared. My heart felt like it was coming out of my chest. She looked so real. That I could have touched her. I can’t remember her going as I jumped out of bed and switched the light on. I really hope this was a hallucination. As I live on my own. I keep seeing her face. I find it scary now to go to bed. I have to leave the light on all night.
So glad I came across this article today. Had an episode about a year ago and it has been happening for the last three nights. I’m falling asleep, and I hear a plane going past with a low humming sound like landing gear opening and then it just hovers there (I have tinnitus which explains why no one else can hear that either). Then I start feeling like someone is rubbing my feet and slowly moving all along my body. I can feel my muscles tensing and retracting all the while the “hands” are moving around and on me. Then I go all tingly, like electric sparks are coming off of me where they touch and I’m so tense my muscles are cramping. The hands continue to do this until the tingling stops and then they go away (about 30 minutes). What was terrifying is that I “realized” if I’m not under the covers they can’t touch me so the problem is solved right? Nope, they put their hands under the jumbled aside blanket and push it over and on top of me. I tried to make my husband see so I pushed the blanket all the way down and slowly watched it move up to my thighs. He never saw or felt a thing. I have never been so terrified in my life.
Last night, it started to happen again. I thought they had left before they could get started but they came back, ran screaming downstairs and stayed there for a couple of hours, wrote everything that happened like a journal to calm myself down.
Went back upstairs, I left the bathroom light on, got under the covers and just let it happen. I think I’m doing that and being more inquisitive rather than terrified it lessened the hallucination’s grip on me and I was able to breathe although a lot of muscle clenching and hyperventilating from stress
I don’t always get the “plane” sound” sometimes it just feels like the dog crawled into bed with us but he’s not there when I check. Or something is slinky over covers. I used to get the black, cloudy shaped visitor that would sit on my chest of drawers also up until my 30’s. I am a lucid dreamer and I rarely sleep a full night, always waking up and having to fight to go back to sleep. Putting all of this together I don’t know how I haven’t experienced the hallucinations this vividly before.
Sorry for the long post, I have been terrorized the last three nights and it’s frustrating to explain what you saw and felt and have no one believe, even loved ones. This makes me feel like I have options to possibly take control of my situation if it comes up again, fingers crossed it’s over for now, I need a nap! :)
Another experience, well experiences, is waking to white figures, an old man, a little boy, and an old lady who I am almost certain was my Nan that had recently passed. I would always wake early hours through the night and see these figures. I have heard someone hushing what seemed right in my ear one night many years ago when I was young.
I believe you. I don’t know what to advise though. If religious, say the name of your god and order whatever it is to go away and never come back. You might be able to do it in your head if you don’t want your husband to think you’re nuts.