Your Guide to Waking Dreams
Sleeping isn't always as straightforward as it seems. It's an involved process associated with several phenomena, including dreams. Sometimes, the lines between what takes place during this stage of sleep and what occurs in our waking lives blur. Fortunately, there are certain clues that can help us determine what's a dream and what's real life. If these events occur just before drifting off to sleep, then it's likely you're experiencing waking dreams.
What Are Waking Dreams?
Waking dreams are also known as hypnagogic hallucinations. Hallucinations are perceptions of stimuli that do not exist. When a person experiences hypnagogic hallucinations, they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel things that don't exist outside their mind.
To be specific, hypnagogic hallucinations occur when a person is about to fall asleep. These hallucinations are experienced during the in-between phase of being awake and being asleep. Hallucinations, in general, can be of any kind, but mostly, hypnagogic hallucinations are visual—that is, the person sees something that is not present.
Even though the idea of hallucinating is a scary one and some people might strictly associate it with psychosis, hypnagogic hallucinations are usually not a cause of concern. A study found that 37% of people have hypnagogic hallucinations while falling asleep.
How Do Hypnagogic Hallucinations Differ from Other Types of Hallucinations?
Hypnagogic hallucinations differ from other hallucinations because of their cause. Most people recognize hallucinations as a symptom of psychosis or a mental illness like schizophrenia.
While there can be an overlap between hypnagogic hallucinations and the hallucinations experienced by people with schizophrenia, some key features distinguish the two. Hypnagogic hallucinations tend to be more visual than auditory, which is what most people with schizophrenic hallucinations experience.
Mostly, people are not negatively impacted by hypnagogic hallucinations. People can also better recognize these experiences as hallucinations while they are happening. Unlike psychotic hallucinations, people are also more likely to forget hypnagogic hallucinations when they go to sleep and wake up to their normal routines.
Only having hypnagogic hallucinations without any other hallucination-related symptoms or experiences during the day is not a cause for concern, and these waking dreams are most probably not a sign of any mental illness either.
People with schizophrenia mostly hear voices or see people that are not present but believe to be real during hallucinations. They also experience other symptoms like delusions, paranoia, lack of focus, speech problems, and disordered thinking.
Hallucinations can occur in other psychological disorders as well, although they are less common. Some people suffering from post-traumatic stress order, bipolar disorder, depression, postpartum disorder, or borderline personality disorder can also experience hallucinations.
Psychotropic drugs, such as Amitriptyline, can cause hallucinations in some people; however, most of the time, it is not a cause of concern during the treatment of these diseases if hypnagogic hallucinations are the only side effects reported.
How Is a Waking Dream Different from a Nightmare?
While it is true that both hypnagogic hallucinations and nightmares are associated with sleep and do not occur during our waking time, they are important differences to note.
Hypnagogic hallucinations occur when a person is drifting off to sleep, unlike nightmares, which occur after sleep. All vivid dreams, including nightmares, occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage—when a person is deep into their sleep.
Nightmares are often remembered in vivid detail by people after they wake up from the frightening scenario they were faced with while asleep. Nightmares can induce strong feelings of fear and are often accompanied by somatic symptoms like palpitations and excessive sweating.
Hypnagogic hallucinations are mostly not remembered by people; however, they don’t tend to be frightening when they are remembered. The element of fear is mostly removed from all discomforting hypnagogic hallucinations experienced.
Nightmares can also be induced or made more intense due to certain psychotropic medication taken for psychological disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some sleep disorders can also heighten the experience of nightmares. Yet, unlike nightmares, hypnagogic hallucinations (in isolation) are common among healthy people.
Hypnagogic Hallucinations and Sleep Paralysis
A phenomenon often associated with sleep is sleep paralysis, in which a person is unable to move or be in control of their body when they feel awake during sleep.
During sleep paralysis, a person can hallucinate about someone who is not present in the room, feeling that they are sitting on the sleeping person’s chest or just present in the room. Sleep paralysis hallucinations can also include smelling something peculiar or hearing voices. Sleep paralysis can occur at any given moment: before, during, or after sleep.
Sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations can occur simultaneously, as well. If a person is just about to fall asleep but is instead taken over by a sleep paralysis accompanied by hallucinations of any kind, then they are experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations.
Symptoms of Hypnagogic Hallucinations
There are no additional symptoms of hypnagogic hallucinations beyond perceiving something that is not present. These hallucinations occur while you are in the process of falling asleep and can (mostly) be visual, auditory, or sensory.
Visual Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Usually, a hypnagogic hallucination of a visual nature can include seeing animated shapes, different colors or shades, and circulating images. For example, a person can hallucinate about streams of moving colors and shapes as if they are looking into a kaleidoscope.
Another example can be seeing a bunch of animals running around you as you are falling asleep, and at the moment, this image might seem very real to you—as if the animals are physically present in the room with you.
One distinguishing feature of hypnagogic hallucinations and dreams is that hallucinations don’t contain a storyline within them. They are not sequential events that you experience but rather snapshots of still or moving parts. Dreams, on the other hand, are vivid storylines that can have a beginning and an ending—events that you can neatly reiterate.
Auditory Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Any experiences where a person wrongly perceives a stimulus that is not present in the moment count as auditory hypnagogic hallucinations. These usually involve background sounds. For example, a lot of people hallucinate a phone ringing or the sound of their doorbell.
Many auditory hallucinations include hearing the voices of real people as if they are present in the room with you and talking around you or even directly to you. Just like visual hallucinations, auditory hallucinations are snippets of speech and random noises that do not follow a specific storyline.
Sensory Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Sensory hallucinations are also known as tactile hallucinations. In such hallucinations, a person feels a bodily sensation that is not occurring. Common examples include feeling weightless or the sensation of falling downwards when laying still.
Other than a visual or auditory hallucination, sometimes a person, when they are alone, can feel that there are some other people present in a room with them. This is a common hallucination that overlaps with sleep paralysis, and if it occurs while a person is falling asleep, it is considered a sensory hypnagogic hallucination.
Most commonly, hypnagogic hallucinations are not distressing, and most people end up forgetting them. However, people might want to explore a hallucination further or see a doctor if it causes them particular stress.
When you visit a doctor to discuss the hypnagogic hallucinations you are experiencing, they will first try to establish when the hallucinations began, how often they occur, and their duration. Your complete medical and psychiatric history will be taken into account, and the doctor might pay special attention to the type of medication you may have been using currently and previously.
The doctor might ask you to keep a sleep diary to discern your sleeping patterns. They might also recommend a sleep study, which is a polysomnography test. This test observes your brain waves, heartbeat, and breathing as you sleep and can help diagnose sleep disorders.
Can Hypnagogic Hallucinations Be Dangerous?
In rare cases, hypnagogic hallucinations can become complicated and might cause some people to panic or lose control. This can especially happen if a person is intoxicated or is being impacted by other psychological problems.
In some extreme cases, people can jump out of bed or try to quickly move their bodies, which can result in injuries. For example, if a person believes that bugs are crawling on them, they might panic and fall out of bed. Fortunately, these cases are very uncommon.
It is generally a good idea to consult a doctor or even a sleep specialist if you experience severe hypnagogic hallucinations.
What Causes Hypnagogic Hallucinations?
The debate about the causes of hypnagogic hallucinations is ongoing. There is no concrete evidence of one cause contributing to the manifestation of hypnagogic hallucinations, nor is there enough scientific data to prove or disprove certain hallucinogenic factors; however, research is ongoing.
On a neurological level, hypnagogic hallucinations do seem to share some similarities with other types of hallucinations that can occur during the daytime or in dreams.
Hypnagogic hallucinations are common among healthy individuals, and on their own, are not a cause for concern. However, hypnagogic hallucinations are also more common in people that have sleep disorders. For example, there is a prevalence of hypnagogic hallucinations in people with narcolepsy, insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, etc. This indicates that there might be a correlation between hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep disturbances.
Substance use, such as taking alcohol or other recreational drugs before sleeping, can also induce or intensify hypnagogic hallucinations. Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression can also cause a person to have more hallucinations, including hypnagogic ones.
How Can I Stop Experiencing Waking Dreams When Going to Sleep?
Although hypnagogic hallucinations are common and (mostly) not an indication of a serious psychological problem, they can still be bothersome. Hypnagogic hallucinations do not induce fear; however, this usually depends on a person’s disposition.
People that have sleep problems are very likely to have hypnagogic hallucinations. So, if you are constantly having hypnagogic hallucinations and wish to improve your life, then improving your sleep is the first step.
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Hypnagogic hallucinations occur when a person perceives a stimulus that is not present just as they are drifting off to sleep. These hallucinations are different from dreams and nightmares, which usually occur during the REM stage of sleep.
Hypnagogic hallucinations can be visual, auditory, or tactile and, generally, are not a cause for concern. They are also different from other hallucinations caused by psychological disorders or psychotropic drugs.
Even though hypnagogic hallucinations are not usually a cause for concern, if a person is experiencing them to a distressing extent or is worried about them in general, they can visit a medical specialist for a consultation.
When a person believes that they have woken up but are actually still asleep, they are experiencing a false awakening. When the person truly wakes up, then they realize that the previous “awakening” had only been a part of their dream.
During a false awakening, people may be aware of something being off about the situation that they are in. This can be a feeling of derealization—where the person believes that they are partially awake.
Having hypnagogic hallucinations is common; completely healthy individuals can have them. So, no. Hypnagogia is not a mental illness, nor is it a symptom of any mental illness or a psychological disorder.
While it is true that people who have certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia or narcolepsy, experience hypnagogic hallucinations more commonly, having these hallucinations alone does not mandate any diagnosis.
A hypnopompic hallucination is just the opposite of a hypnagogic hallucination. That is to say, it occurs when a person is coming out of sleep. Like a hypnagogic hallucination, this hallucination can include hearing, seeing, or sensing things that do not exist.
Also, like a hypnagogic hallucination, a hypnopompic hallucination is generally not a cause for concern. Healthy people can have hypnopompic hallucinations without underlying medical or psychological problems.
Rapid eye movement (REM) is a sleep stage that occurs within 90 minutes of a person falling asleep and cycles every 90 minutes. So, it cannot occur when you are awake.
REM sleep is characterized by random rapid eye movements and increased brain activity. It is essential for memory consolidation and nervous system development.