When I had insomnia, some of the strangest things would happen. Most frightening among them were these jolts of fear that would occur right on the cusp of sleep at night. Sometimes I'd jerk awake and feel like I was choking or having a heart attack.
It was seriously the weirdest thing.
My typical pattern went something like this: After what felt like a fairly ridiculous amount of time, I'd finally fall lightly into sleep. And then BAM, shortly thereafter, I'd jerk awake in a state of panic or fear wondering what on earth was wrong with me. Sometimes I’d involuntarily jump right out of bed and just stand there dazed and confused trying to get my bearings.
One time, while staying in a hotel, I somehow ended up in the hall standing in my pajamas with no key in hand — apparently I jolted awake and felt the need to escape the room entirely.
Talk about embarrassing.
Even though I saw a slew of doctors, not one of them could tell me what was happening or felt compelled to mention there was an actual name for these bizarre events.
The formal name for these occurrences is hypnic jerks (also known as hypnogogic jerks, sleep starts, brain zaps, hypnic myoclonus, or sleep twitches). Basically it’s an awareness of the process of falling asleep that jolts you awake.
These jerks aren't that uncommon and tend to happen right as we transition from wakefulness to sleep, or occasionally soon after sleep. Rarely do they occur out of a deep sleep.
They can manifest in several different ways: the physical experience of limb movements, some people feel like they're falling through space, while others might experience hallucinations. Generally, they're painless although they might be accompanied by sensations like tingling or electric shock.
It's not really surprising what causes them…
Hypnic jerks are caused by none other than our good friend hyperarousal.
I often use words like hypervigilance, hyperawareness, or hypersensitivity… but they all stem from hyperarousal, which is simply a heightened state of alertness.
When you have insomnia, there's a component of anxiety that makes you much more alert to anything happening around sleep. We want to know everything about it: what time we fall asleep, how much sleep we get, how many times we wake up, what stage of sleep we’re in...
It's like our brain wants confirmation that sleep is actually happening.
This leads to an immense amount of monitoring around sleep.
So basically, what happens is: you go bed and hyperawareness kicks in. Then, as soon as you fall asleep, your brain wakes you up to let you know that you did! (Never a shortage of paradoxes in insomnia-land.)
People without insomnia often have these jerks, but they don't even notice because they're not particularly aware of anything happening around their sleep. They just go to bed and fall asleep and that's the end of it.
Now, you’re probably wondering what you can do about them...
The best way to stop jerking awake at night is to simply allow it to happen. Like insomnia, they tend to go away when you no longer pay attention to them.
Insomnia is rooted in a deep fear of not sleeping and how it affects our health and well-being. It’s the fear and resistance to be awake at night that keeps the cycle of insomnia alive. The same goes for hypnic jerks —the more we try to avoid them, the more hyperarousal we create.
Here are a few upsides to these sleep transition events:
When you experience hypnic awareness, you don’t need to do anything about it. Allowing it to happen teaches the brain that there’s nothing to fear — no threat to escape. When there’s no threat to escape, there’s no hyperarousal, and without hyperarousal, you transition into sleep peacefully.
I wish that every doctor and sleep specialist I ever saw could read this blog. If just one of them had said, ‘yeah, your brain is hyperaroused on the lookout for sleep,' that would have made so much sense to me! When you understand what your brain is doing, it’s not so scary anymore.
I thought I had somehow forgotten how to cross fully into sleep, when in actuality, I was doing precisely that! Had I known, I would have welcomed the events instead of fearing them.
Nothing has gone wrong with your brain — your body is just doing what it does at night, which is fall asleep 😴
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice or treatment. My goal is to empower you with information. Please make all health decisions yourself, consulting sources you trust, including a caring health care professional.
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