That Falling Feeling When Going To Sleep
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.
Photo: NewEndProductions (cc)