Hypnagogic jerk - the feeling you're falling

Hypnagogic jerk – the feeling you’re falling

You’re drifting off to sleep when suddenly you’re jolted awake, by a feeling that you’re falling. That is a ‘hypnagogic jerk’, and they’re very common. For some people though they are frequent and intrusive. So what causes them and how can you stop them?

What causes a hypnagogic jerk?

Hypnagogia is the transitional state between waking and sleeping, and it’s when we can experience a range of phenomena – lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic jerks.

There’s no settled opinion on what exactly causes these ‘night starts’. The most widely accepted theory is that the shift in muscle tone is misinterpreted as falling. It’s the body’s response to this, tensing the muscles in readiness, that jolts people back into wakefulness.

How normal are hypnagogic jerks?

Around 70% of people experience them, and will do so infrequently. For a very small minority though they are much more frequent and intrusive. They find that the jerks, and even the anticipation of the jerks, make them anxious about falling asleep.

How can I prevent having a hypnagogic jerk?

You can’t prevent them all together – they’re part of how our brains are wired. You can minimise the chances of them though.

  • Firstly try to achieve a regular sleep pattern, as irregular sleep patterns are linked to greater incidences of ‘sleep starts’.
  • Secondly, avoid caffeine after midday, and stop or reduce your alcohol consumption.
  • Third, whilst exercise helps to promote sleep, exercising too close to your bedtime can promote hypnagogic jerks.
  • Finally take active steps to relax in the period before you go to sleep – for instance have a warm bath, or listen to music or an audiobook or podcast.

Is there any point to hypnagogic jerks?

The theory is that they date right back to prehistory, when we slept in trees to escape predators. Any drop in muscle tone could have seen us dropping to the ground, and facing injury or worse. That is why we have evolved such a sensitivity to the sensation of falling.

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