“To sleep perchance to dream,” is a noted part of Prince Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s masterwork Hamlet, and for most of us dreaming is one of the perks of getting a good night’s sleep. But sleep can have several dark sides. Many people suffer from insomnia and are constantly frustrated at their inability to get the rest that they crave, while others suffer from sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea that has them gasping for breath throughout the night, taxing their bodies and causing a myriad of serious health conditions.
In addition to the long list of sleep disorders there are some anomalies that can turn your normal night of sleep into something out of a nightmare. Though these things may sound strange, sleep physicians have indicated that they are all just part of the strange tricks that our bodies and brains can play on us while we’re out for the night. They are harmless, and interesting – especially if they happen to somebody else.
Just in case any of these have ever happen to you – or happen to you in the future – there’s no reason to call a doctor. Just shake your head and move on … they make pretty good stories to share with your friends.
The Sense of Falling
This is one that will have a lot of people nodding in recognition. It’s actually called a hypnagogic jerk, and it most frequently happens to people early in their sleep phases. In fact, it generally happens right as you’re actually falling asleep. What happens is that when your body gets ready to go into dreamland, a process occurs that creates a sort of temporary paralysis. Hypnagogic jerks happen when your brain starts to dream before your body has fully turned its muscles and nerve reactions off for the night, so if you start dreaming some kind of physical activity your body will actually jerk – kind of like what you see dogs doing while they’re sleeping and you assume they’re chasing a rabbit in their dreams. It generally awakens us, leaving us feel strange and somewhat panicked. According to Dr. W. Christopher Winter, the medical director of the sleep center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Virginia, a lot of times the dreams that we have when we’re stressed or overtired involve falling or tripping, and that’s why the body jerks the way that it does.
So now that we’ve learned about hypnagogic jerks, the movement that happens when your body hasn’t caught up to the brain in terms of it being time for total shutdown, let’s look at the opposite – sleep paralysis. This is the term for that feeling you get when you wake up in the morning and are completely unable to talk or move. It can last just a few seconds or as long as several seemingly interminable minutes, and it’s what happens when your brain has woken up before the paralysis that our body imposes on itself when we’re sleeping has gone away. Though it can cause extreme panic, a lot of that can be eliminated by simply understanding that when we go to sleep, our body shuts down every muscle except for the diaphragm. Once the body wakes up, everything will be back to normal. Just breathe (that’s really all you can do anyway!)
Feeling Like Your Head is Exploding
This is another type of hypnagogic jerk. According to Dr. Winter, “All of a sudden the person wakes up having heard a really loud noise, like an explosion, a flash of light, or a sense that their head is exploding. In reality, nothing has actually happened.” It is the same physical phenomenon as the sense that you’re falling – your brain hasn’t fully coordinated with the body that it’s time to shut down, and because your senses are still fully alert it’s just something that can happen. It’s totally harmless, though frightening.
Sex in your Sleep
This happens to more people than you would imagine – a recent survey of patients at a sleep disorders center at the University Health Network in Toronto showed that approximately eight percent of people said that they had woken up in the middle of having sex with their partner. And in many cases, the sex they were having or the way that they were behaving was far different from how they would behave if they were totally conscious. It’s very similar to sleepwalking in that when it happens you’re not deeply asleep – that’s why you’re able to move, you’re already more physically alert than you would be during sleep paralysis – and you may have been dreaming of sex and simply be acting out your dream. According to Dr. Winter, “Many people have a vague recollection of it happening during the night or they wake up during sex. It’s possible you may have been dreaming about sex or perhaps you went to bed with the urge.”
Walking in your Sleep
And speaking of sleep walking, though people tend to think of walking in your sleep as something that’s funny, some real-life version of what we used to see in Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny cartoons, the truth is that it can be extremely dangerous. People who get out of bed and walk around while still asleep are neither conscious nor intentional. They can trip, fall down a flight of stairs, jump through windows or off balconies and even get behind the wheel of a car and drive. People’s bodies are awake but their brains are not, which means they also don’t remember what they’ve done later.
Talking in your Sleep
One in twenty of us talk in our sleep according to a study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The speaking is not particularly fluent, as it is coming when the body is partially paralyzed. According to Dr. Winter, “It often happens within the first hour or two of sleep when your body is entering into deep stages of sleep, but there’s still enough muscle tone to produce sounds or movements that may accompany dreams.” It usually lasts less than a minute.