Ep 23. Why You Jerk Awake Right After Falling Asleep

Feb 21, 2024

 Do you suddenly JOLT awake in a state of panic right on the cusp of sleep?

Does your brain wake you up right after you've drifted off?

Do you feel like you’re unconsciously monitoring everything about your sleep (even while you're sleeping)? 

This episode is all about hypnic jerks — what they are, why they happen, and what you can do about it. 

Hypnic jerks were a big part of my own struggle with insomnia, and definitely one of the scarier things I've been through. 

I couldn't figure out why my body would jolt me awake right on the edge of sleep and leave me feeling like I wanted to flee the room?

It made zero sense. 

Doctors were completely stumped, and I thought for sure I was developing some sort of neurological condition. 

Come to find out, these jerks aren’t unusual at all. In fact, they’re a common part of the insomnia experience. 

Tune in to discover why this unsettling experience is a normal facet of our fight-or-flight system and how you can navigate it with more ease. 


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About Beth Kendall MA, FNTP: 

For decades, Beth struggled with the relentless grip of insomnia. After finally understanding insomnia from a mind-body perspective, she changed her relationship with sleep, and completely recovered. Liberated from the constant worry of not sleeping, she’s on a mission to help others recover as well. Her transformative program Mind. Body. Sleep.™ has been a beacon of light for hundreds of others seeking solace from sleepless nights. 


The Mystery of the Nighttime Jolt: Why Do We Jerk Awake?

Exploring Hypnic Jerks: Understanding the Phenomenon

Hello everyone and welcome to today’s episode where I’m going to talk all about Hypnic Jerks — what they are, why they happen, and what you can do about it.


Now, many of you out there may experience this bizarre sensation at night where you’re right on the cusp of sleep, or maybe right after you’ve fallen asleep, your body suddenly JOLTS you awake. And this experience can come with a lot of panic or fear, causing your heart to race like you’re on the verge of a heart attack, or maybe you feel a sensation like you’re suffocating which makes it hard to breathe. Some people feel like they’re falling.


And this phenomenon can range anywhere from a full body jump out of bed, to simply waking up mentally right on the edge of sleep and then being wide awake after that. 


The Experience of Hypnic Jerks

Hypnic jolts were not only a common aspect of my struggle with insomnia, but also one of the most frightening. And what made them so terrifying was not just the intensely unsettling experience of having them, but also the lack of understanding surrounding their cause. Because no one seemed to know what was happening.  


Often, I would jolt out of bed, feeling like I needed to escape the room, or like I couldn’t breathe. And this terror became so overwhelming that I started to fear not only the prospect of not sleeping, but also the possibility of having one of these adrenalized electric jolts.


And I truly believed this was something unique to me because I had never heard of anyone else having this particular problem, and medical professionals seemed baffled as to what could be going on. I even did a few MRI’s because there was concern I was developing epilepsy or some kind of neurological condition. So, at the time, I found the situation incredibly perplexing and mysterious which caused me a LOT of worry.

A Common Aspect of Insomnia

Now, as a sleep coach, I actually find these kinds of events to be quite common. Many people I work with experience this manifestation of hyperarousal. So, my hope for you today is that you come away from this episode with a deeper understanding of what drives this phenomenon and what you can do about it.


Okay, so let’s first dive a little deeper into what they are.

Causes and Triggers

These utterly strange occurrences are formally known as hypnic jerks. But they might also be called hipnagajuk jerks, sleep jerks, brain zaps, or sleep starts. They could also be called sleep twitches, which is another very common sensation I see in insomnia.


Basically, they entail an abrupt awakening triggered by a heightened awareness of the falling asleep process. And when you consider the context of insomnia, this phenomenon makes a lot of sense, right? Because when there’s a heightened sensitivity to anything sleep-related, our brains remain vigilant. They want to know what’s going on, even to the point of waking us up to signal the onset of sleep.


These types of jerks generally don’t seem to occur as much in a deep sleep, although it’s also not uncommon to experience a variation of these jerks or twitches throughout the night.


And the physical experience of these jerks can be a little different for everyone — some people feel like they’re falling through space, some people hallucinate. While they’re not generally painful, they might be accompanied by sensations like tingling, or vibrating, or feelings of electric shock.


And they don’t have a particular schedule; they can happen frequently or randomly. Sometimes they’re tied to periods of intense stress, but sometimes not. I generally experienced them when I was in a cycle of insomnia, but they would happen pretty much nightly when that was the case.


So, what really causing this? Why do they happen? What would make a person jolt out of bed in a panic right on the verge of sleep?


Unconscious Monitoring of Sleep

Well, as you so often hear me say, this is due to hyperarousal. And in the case of hypnic jerks, terms like hypervigilance and hyperawareness also come into play. But these are all due to an elevated state of alertness around sleep.


And this heightened sensitivity is fueled not only by a deep desire for sleep, but also an intense focus on understanding and problem-solving our sleep issues. We become deeply invested in unraveling the mystery of insomnia and figuring out how to get back to what we perceive has been lost.


So, this leads to a tremendous amount of monitoring by the brain. So deep is our desire for sleep that our brain will jolt us awake to give us confirmation that sleep is actually happening.


Our brains think they’re doing us a favor, however, the burst of adrenaline that usually accompanies these jolts has the paradoxical effect of keeping us awake.


Now, people without insomnia also get these jerks and twitches, but they don’t tend to notice because they’re not particularly aware of anything happening around their sleep. They just go to bed and fall asleep and that’s pretty much the end of it.


Okay, so how do we get rid of these jerks? What can we do about this whole situation?

Stategies for Hypnic Jerks 

Well, the best way to stop jerking at night is to simply allow them to happen. I know this sounds impossible and contradictory, but much like insomnia, they tend to go away when you no longer pay any attention to them.


Insomnia is rooted in a deep fear of not being able to sleep and the impact of that on our health and well-being. It’s our fear and resistance to wakefulness that perpetuates the cycle of insomnia. It’s the same with hypnic jerks, the more we attempt to avoid them, the more unintentional hyperarousal we create.


Paradoxes everywhere.


So, let me give you five tips to help you navigate hypnic jerks with a little more ease.


  1. Let me begin by reassuring you that while these jerks and jolts are an incredibly scary thing to go through, they can’t actually harm you, they pose no actual harm. They stem from our natural fight-or-flight system, so despite feeling incredibly threatening in the moment, they ARE a safe process that our bodies are designed to generate.



  1. Hypnic jerks serve as excellent evidence that your body DOES know how to fall asleep! So, consider any sleep jolts you experience as confirmation that your body knows exactly what it’s doing. There’s no need to continually monitor sleep because your body instinctively knows how to do it all on its own and this innate capacity will never change.


  1. It’s important to acknowledge that the feelings of fear we experience are very real. But the story that our fear tells us about the level of danger occurring, isn’t necessarily accurate. So being able to pull these two aspects apart can help you feel less identified with the fear.


And you know, just from a more macro level, I think this concept applies to many facets of life. There’s the thing, and then there’s the story that we attach to the thing, which is what gives it meaning and significance in our lives. So, just being aware of this unique distinction between the thing, and our experience of the thing based on our story, will help you bring some of these unconscious patterns conscious.


  1. As hyperarousal starts to come down, so do hypnic jerks. Initially, they might still occur, but maybe you find yourself less frightened by them. Eventually, the start to decrease in frequency, and over time, they often just stop happening at all. I used to get them most nights during cycles of insomnia, but now I haven’t had one in years. And who knows, maybe I may still experience twitches and jerks at night, but because that heightened sensitivity around anything that could disrupt my sleep is gone, my brain simply doesn’t register them, or perceive them as a threat anymore.


  1. I think the key is to simply understand the nature of hypnic jerks and recognize their role as a natural part of the falling asleep process. Because with this understanding, there’s significantly less mystery and confusion and anxiety about what’s occurring and why. Understanding also reduces the urge to investigate and try to figure things out. When there's no longer a sense of mystery, and we perhaps view the jerks as merely a signal that sleep is approaching... they become less bothersome over time.


I hope that something here was useful. If you find you need more help with your sleep, you can go to bethkendall.com and check out our coaching options.


Until next time, I’m Beth Kendall and this is the Mind. Body. Sleep. podcast, I’ll see you soon.

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