That Falling Feeling When Going To Sleep

July 16, 2010 at 5:00 am 13 comments

By Chad Upton

When you’re falling asleep, do you ever get that sensation of falling, sometimes followed by a jerk reaction?

It’s pretty normal for this to happen occasionally. Irregular sleep schedules are one known cause and the explanation behind it is pretty interesting.

During REM sleep, your muscles go into a state called atonia. Essentially, all of your muscles except those in your eyes and those used for breathing are temporary paralyzed. You brain blocks signals that are normally sent to these muscles. This is true for humans and common among most other warm blooded mammals.

This is the reason why your muscles don’t actually move when you’re dreaming about them moving. It’s a self preservation mechanism, preventing you from hurting yourself and other people while you’re asleep, which is obviously good for your safety but it also prevents you from waking yourself, ensuring a proper sleep.

If your REM sleep is interrupted, your muscles resume from atonia and your mind returns to consciousness at roughly the same time. But, it is possible for your consciousness to resume before muscle control. You’ll be awake, but paralyzed. This is called “sleep paralysis” and as many as 60% of people will experience it at least once in their lifetime. It can be scary, but it normally occurs for a very brief period of time, sometimes it is so short that you may not even realize it happened.

This sensation is often described with feelings of fear or dread and described like an out of body experience. Auditory and visual hallucinations have been reported and are part of the mythology of some cultures, attributing this feeling to supernatural forces, demons, UFO encounters and so on. There are also people who believe this state is a doorway to the inner mind and they try to remain in this state as long as possible.

Waking up into sleep paralysis a single time is not usually something to worry about, but if it happens more frequently then it could be a symptom of a more serious problem such as narcolepsy and you should see a doctor. Sleep paralysis occurs more commonly when people are on their backs, but doctors do not know why.

Sleep paralysis can also happen while you’re falling asleep. Your mind may realize that you are awake but your body is paralyzed. That disconnect can cause the feeling of falling, which is startling and often accompanied by a hypnic jerk.

Super thanks to Dr Ryan W, the Broken Secrets neurology expert, for his help with this post and for his great work in neurology.

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Sources: Dr Ryan W, Sleepdex, brynmawr.edu, Wikipedia (Hypnagogia, Hypnic Jerk)

Photo: NewEndProductions (cc)

Entry filed under: Demystified. Tags: , , , , , , .

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shannon  |  July 16, 2010 at 7:32 am

    “..if it happens frequently then it can be a symptom of a bigger problem”

    What constitutes “frequently”? LIke once every night, or mulitple times a night? And what could be the bigger problem?

    Reply
    • 2. Chad Upton  |  July 16, 2010 at 8:20 am

      The frequency at which it could be a problem could vary by person so I wouldn’t want to put a number on it. It could be a symptom of a disorder such as narcolepsy.

      Reply
      • 3. LBD  |  July 21, 2010 at 12:04 am

        Man, I hate sleep parlysis. It happens to me about once a month or so, plus every time I fall asleep on my back. Most terrifying state of existance ever, and the hallucinations are terrible…

  • 4. Robbie  |  July 16, 2010 at 11:59 am

    One of my favorite posts that I’ve seen on here! I’ve always been fascinated with why my body does that sometimes, but never think to look up why it happens.

    Reply
  • 5. Jaclyn  |  July 16, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    i had read somewhere that, when your leg kicks while you’re having one of those “falling” dreams, it’s due to your brain not quite realizing that you’re just falling asleep and instead thinking that you’re simply not getting enough oxygen (due do the reduction of oxygen flow when you are falling asleep), and sends a message to your muscles to spasm in order to wake the body back up and get that oxygen flow back to where it should be if you were awake.

    i’m sure the actual explanation was much more scientific, but that’s about the jist of it, from what i understood.

    Reply
  • 6. Charyl  |  July 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Very interesting!! How does this compare to “restless leg syndrome”? Is that also a neurological issue?

    Reply
  • 7. Robert the Skeptic  |  July 16, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Hypnogogic hallucinations happen as you are falling asleep, hypnopomic are hallucinations when you are waking. These are most commonly associated with claims of alien abduction or seeing deceased relatives. It’s why you seldom see your dead grandmother crossing the street in front of you when you are stopped at a red light.

    They can appear very “real” and often people in various stages of sleep have trouble discerning if the experience is a memory or a hallucination. Either way the experience can appear to be very “real” to those experiencing them.

    Reply
  • 8. Jordan  |  July 17, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    So when people move in their sleep or sleep walk does that just mean their body can’t properly go into the state of atonia?

    Reply
  • 9. Brett  |  July 20, 2010 at 2:34 am

    When I take naps, which is pretty rare, I’ll do it unintentionally. A few minutes later I’ll kind of be awake. It’s like, I know I’m awake but I can’t move any of my body or open my eyes. Its kind of scary.

    Reply
  • 10. Allez  |  July 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    A similar thing has been happening to me quite a bit since finishing chemotherapy (and yes, I am seeing a neurologist). Do you know of any literature linking the two?

    Reply
  • 11. Russell  |  December 24, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    This has happened to me several times. Each occurred just before I was going to fall asleep. I would always jerk myself awake, because I was afraid that I was experiencing some form of medical emergency, which would immediately stop the sensation of falling. The last time this occurred, I simply let the sensation continue, and after a few seconds a I became very calm and actually enjoyed the sensation. It hasn’t happened since then.

    Reply
  • 12. Melinda  |  February 12, 2014 at 12:17 am

    This has happened to me for as long as I can remember but lately it’s been happening while I’m wide awake. This evening for example, while sitting on the couch with my boyfriend, each of us on our iPads. All of a sudden, I felt like I woke up and had to rise up quickly to catch my breath. Then I was really dazed and weak for a few minutes. It’s really scary.

    Reply
  • 13. Kevin  |  April 12, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Sometimes something similar happens to me but it doesn’t seem to be as drastic. It’s more just I jump slightly, no hallucinations or anything weird as some people have been saying. Is this something different?

    Reply

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