What is a hypnagogic hallucination?

Hypnagogic hallucinations occur during the first phase of sleep, when we find ourselves in an intermediate state between wakefulness and sleep. Like so-called hypnopompic hallucinations – which occur in the first moments of wakefulness – they can be very precise and seem quite real. So much so that they cause anxiety and sleep disorders in some people. However, they are not recognized as hallucinations, in the medical sense of the term. What could be the causes? How to avoid them? We take stock.

Definition: what is a hypnagogic hallucination?

As stated above, hypnagogic hallucinations occur during the sleep phase, while we are lying down and our eyes are closed. They are most often disturbing, hostile, and affect the quality of life of those who suffer from them. Not only can they induce anxiety, but they can also cause injuries and accidents, resulting in panic and confusion.

Note: these hallucinations are not not considered pathological and everyone can be confronted with this phenomenon, without necessarily being affected by a psychiatric illness.

What are the different types of hypnagogic hallucinations?

These hallucinatory experiences can take all kinds of forms. Most often it isvisual hallucinations (we see insects, monsters, silhouettes, etc.). But it can also be:

  • auditory hallucinations (the impression of hearing a specific noise, music, voice, buzzing, etc.);
  • tactile hallucinations (the impression that someone is stinging us, grabbing us, strange us, etc.);
  • hallucinations kinesthetic (the feeling that the room is moving, that the bed is moving or that she is falling);
  • hallucinations olfactory (the impression of smelling cooking, gas, etc. odors that do not exist)
  • or taste hallucinations (the impression of having something in the mouth).

These hypnagogic hallucinations can be mixed, both auditory, visual and kinesthetic, for example. The unfortunate victims may feel like they see a boar by their bed, growling and grabbing them by the sleeve to throw it to the ground. As in any dream, it eventually disappears, but leaves the person frightened.

Causes: why do I have hallucinations at night?

The causes of hypnagogic hallucinations can be psychological, neurological or behavioral. In some cases, it is even impossible to clearly establish their origin, because several factors come into play. They can be regular or occur spontaneously in “sane” subjects, when their lifestyle is in a bad way, but also in people with psychiatric disorders or heavy alcohol/drug consumption. The main recognized causes are:

sleep disorders

People with sleep disorders, e.g. the narcolepsy (the irrepressible need to sleep can occur at any time) or the sleep paralysis are more often prone to hallucinations at the onset of sleep. The same applies to people who sleep little or suffer from chronic insomnia.

Certain psychological or psychiatric disorders

People plagued by anxietyto chronic stresse or at the depression are also more at risk of developing hallucinations.

This is also the case for people in the throes of a bipolar disorder or a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia.

Alcohol and psychotropic substances

The hallucinations that occur when falling asleep can also be induced by the consumption of alcohol or psychotropic substances of all kinds: not only so-called “recreational” drugs (ecstasy, amphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, etc.), but also certain medications available on prescriptionincluding beta-blockers or benzodiazepines, commonly called tranquilizers, painkillers or anxiolytics.

Brain lesions or tumors

Finally, hallucinations can be linked to brain lesions or tumors, or even neurological disorders. However, these phenomena are rare, and many other symptoms sound the alarm. To rule this out, take the time to consult a neurologist.

What other illnesses cause these hallucinations?

These nocturnal hallucinations can also be observed in patients with Parkinson’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, loss of vision (Charles-Bonnet syndrome), pathology of the midbrain and diencephalon (peduncular hallucinosis).

Although these hallucinations often only have benign consequences, they can seriously impact the quality of life of those who suffer from them, to the point of being afraid to go to sleep, or not being able to doze off. Some people, in the throes of panic episodes, can even hurt themselves or the person sleeping next to them.

Initially, certain measures can prevent the occurrence of such hallucinations, or at least limit their incidence:

  • Stick to regular hours of sleep and get enough sleep;
  • Place a night light near your bed in case you wake up;
  • Avoid sleeping on your back for a while to assess the effects;
  • Focus on wellness practices such as relaxation, meditation, reading, etc., before going to bed;
  • Avoid consuming mind-altering substances, such as alcohol, drugs and certain medications in absolute terms – and before sleeping.

After a hallucinatory episode, take time to breathe slowly to calm you down. If you panic, it will only get worse. Sit down for a while, get up slowly and drink some water to come to your senses. You are safe.

If these measures are not enough, you can always see a sleep doctor, neurologist, or psychiatrist who will be able to help you.

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