Hallucinations During Sleep

Woman Sleeping Badly

Hallucinations during sleep are a phenomenon that can target any sensory perception, be it visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or other. Sleep hallucinations are often confused with both illusions and dreams. They occur in the state between waking and sleeping, although the person is considered to be technically asleep during these hallucinations. This is in contrast to dreams or lucid dreams, which occur while the person is asleep.

What’s the Difference Between Illusions and Hallucinations?

Illusions occur while awake and are classified as a sensory misrepresentation of an external stimulus, while hallucinations occur in the absence of any external stimuli. Hallucinations most often occur in the stages before or after sleep, explaining their connection as a sleep-related phenomenon. Hallucinations can occur at any time, though this article will only look at hallucinations as they are connected to sleep. Hallucinations are common, most notably sleep-related hallucinations, with over 10 percent of the population experiencing one at some point in their life.

Hypnagogic Hallucinations, Hypnopompic Hallucinations, and Sleep Paralysis

The two forms of sleep related hallucinations are called hypnagogic (hypnagogia) and hypnopompic (hypnopompia) hallucinations. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur just before sleep, and may be accompanied by sleep paralysis, a state in which the subject is physically immobile but fully conscious. Hypnopompia, which is often considered as part of a dream by the subject, also involves difficulty breathing and muscle tightness. Hypnopompia occurs upon waking, and may also be accompanied by sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis is much more common in hypnopompia than in hypnagogia. Sleep paralysis is often confused by the person experiencing it as part of a lucid dream, which accounts for the high number of recalled dreams with elements of being frozen in place or being unable to move. Common hypnopompic experiences include the sensation of falling and the feeling of a presence in the room.

Distinguishing Dreams From Sleep Hallucinations

Sleep hallucinations can cause confusion, as they will often be indistinguishable from reality in your mind. In contrast, upon waking from a dream during REM sleep, most people will clearly recognize it was a dream they were experiencing, or may immediately forget about the dream entirely upon waking. Hallucinations may also cause fear, especially upon waking, as they may include clear and complex visual images that are distorted or make no sense.

Sleep-related hallucinations can occur in as many as 25 percent of people, as opposed to under 5 percent for non sleep-related hallucinations. They are most commonly found in young adults and teens, and the frequency of hallucinations seems to decrease with age. Females are more likely to experience them than males.

Woman Experiencing Bad Dream

Known Causes and Treatment of Sleep-Related Hallucinations

Sleep-related hallucinations may be a direct result of alcohol or drug use, or could be due to insomnia, anxiety, stress or other factors. People with narcolepsy have a high rate of sleep hallucination occurrences.

Sleep hallucinations may not need treatment, as they often occur infrequently and do not affect sleep quality. They may be a sign of mental stress though, or if coupled with daytime sleepiness, even narcolepsy. If the hallucinations are causing fear or anxiety, or to validate its causes, you may want to talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist. When issues of mental stress are suspected, you may be advised to contact a therapist, or practice relaxation techniques before bedtime to help the mind shut down. It may also be advised to stay out of bed until feeling extremely tired, to avoid lying awake in bed and having the mind wander onto issues that may be causing you stress or anxiety. It has been shown in studies that the clearer a person’s mind is, the less likely they are to hallucinate, or even dream. 

If the hallucinations are the result of medication, drug or alcohol use, it may be advised to refrain from their use, and you may need to change medications if this is the case.

Any suspected case of narcolepsy should be consulted with a sleep specialist, and an overnight sleep study performed to look into it further. Narcolepsy can be a debilitating disorder that can be treated.

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178 thoughts on “Hallucinations During Sleep

  1. Juanesia Keppard Reply

    I’ve had about three sleep hallucinations that I can remember. One occured while I was sleeping next to my husband and I heard a hissing sound of a snake and I saw a snake moving toward me to bite me so I woke up and jumped out of the bed screaming and scared. It didn’t feel like a dream because I clearly visualized my bedroom and it was as if it was happening in real time. The second, I thought a felt bugs crawling on my legs but I woke up and nothing was there. The most recent one was where I was turned on my side and saw a swarm of bugs coming directly at me while I was in the bed so I covered my face up and told myself it wasn’t real and it eventually went away.

  2. Jenny Reply

    I’m trying to figure out if this is normal or not but last year I went to my long distance boyfriend at the time, house for 2 and a half weeks and we slept next to each other every night, I’ve gotten so used to sleeping with him that when I returned home for the never week or so I would wake up in the middle of the night frantically calling out for him, looking for him, telling him to come cuddle, all verbally…. Some nights I would wake up and sit up and see him in my bed and then lay down back to sleep, then later wake up realizing he wasn’t actually there, it felt like a conscious sleep talking. But now currently I have a new boyfriend and he comes over every week end and sleeps next to me and when he leaves about 1-2 times the same thing happens, but with him, I sit up and call for him I often shake the pillows on my bed thinking it’s him, this is all consciously, I’m not sure if this is normal or not but I’d like to know if I had any mental problems so I could look into some medicines, I’m tired of hallucinating.

  3. Sandi Reply

    This started on Christmas 2020. I fell a sleep and then woke up soon after and there was a cartoon movie which looked like it was being projected onto the window shade. I actually watched it and thought, “what the heck?”. I thought it was something being projected from a neighbor that had children and this was coming from their yard display. I found out in the morning, no one had a cartoon being projected for Christmas. It was a cartoon girl riding a reindeer.

    Then it happened again a week later but I was sleeping in a different bedroom of my house. Same thing. I fall asleep and wake up suddenly and there is a movie of cartoon characters on my white wall. Both times I have watched it and then it disappears. I then realized that no one was projecting a cartoon Christmas scene on their lawn the first time this happened but I still don’t know why it occurs.

    It happened a 3rd time weeks later. Same cartoon movie which looks like it’s being projected on the wall. Very privative cartoon figures as if they could be from the 50’s. Not sophisticated, early Disney perhaps. I am not a Disney fan but it looks like an early Disney style.

    It’s so bizarre. I don’t feel like I am hallucinating. I have never had insomnia. I am an easy sleeper and don’t take drugs. I actually become wide awake and watch this cartoon movie until it fades away.

    The brain is so mysterious. This is not frightening, just odd that my brain would choose cartoons projected on a wall, but it just makes no sense to me. I fall back asleep once the vision fades so, it doesn’t even keep me awake, just puzzles me. The vision of the cartoon movie is very real at the time it’s happening. I wish I knew why this happened.

    Since these episodes happened during Covid, I assume it may be that I was dealing with being afraid of Covid but not expressing it to anyone.

  4. Savanna Reply

    Last night, I had a dream in which I was hallucinating, and I was seeing things that weren’t their, such as this big black dragon flying outside the window. This all happened in the dream, but I was so scared when i woke up, and so I looked it up to see if it meant something.

  5. Damon Reply

    I think narcolepsy and insomnia walk hand in hand. I have often been extremely tired at off times, and yet once went for nine days without sleeping. The result was a delusional spell that began when I finally fell asleep, and continued when I woke up.

  6. Ags Reply

    This has been happening to me for God-knows how many times. I don’t even remember when it started exactly but it was around a year ago. I have experienced countless sleep paralysis along with hallucinations. They don’t include any spider or scary animal but myself trapped in my own hallucinations (or dreams?) because I’d wake up not to the real world but but to an imaginary reality. So, yeah, the environment looked like my house but once it felt too light to move, I knew I hadn’t actually woken up yet. There were times I woke up to the ‘wrong’ reality repeatedly. It was horrible! Sometimes just pure hallucinations that don’t make sense while I’m struggling to get out of the sleep paralysis. The last time was earlier today. I’m still not sure if I should seek help. Has anyone else experienced something like this?

  7. Mae Reply

    This happened to me when I was younger, never thought much of it until now. The spider I saw was fairly big and it was on my wall inches from my face. I was only young so I screamed and my dad had to look for it. Obviously he couldn’t find any spider but I remember waking up for no reason to see it run off behind a drawer. I think it’s to do with waking up suddenly, it’s like my imagination from dreaming carried over into real life. Waking up suddenly could also be a random fear response, humans are wired to wake up if we sense danger, even if nothing’s actually there. This only happened to my once so I hope that’s the same for you.

  8. Casie Reply

    I’ve dealt with this since I was younger I always wake up about 30 minutes to an hour after I fall asleep and panic thinking someone is in my closet, bathroom, or hallway or sometimes it’s spiders. Crazy thing is for the longest time I didn’t realize I was doing it until my husband recorded me. Sometimes I remember and other times I don’t. Last night it was someone in my closet and I jumped out of bed and turned the lights on and of course no one was there. My heart was beating so fast!! Luckily my husband is use to it now but when we first got married I did it one night and when I came to he was storming the house with a gun looking for an intruder and I didn’t remember saying someone was breaking in! Uhg it’s very frustrating I wish there was something I could do to stop it! I don’t drink and I’m not really stressed!!

  9. Ellen Roberge Reply

    Well, after reading all of the comments, it looks like there are literally thousands of people that experience the same hynopompic auditory and visual hallucinations during the night. And since I’ve never found a solution I guess for all of us it’s just gonna be “Suck it up and deal with it.

  10. Ellen C. Roberge Reply

    It first started with tinnutis in 1995. Not much later I started hearing music (musical ear syndrome). Somewhere in 2009 and up till now, I experience all of the aforementioned, plus hynopomic auditory and visual hallucinations. In general the auditory and visual hallucinations are frightening always, never pleasant, and happen every single night. I believe the reason is that I am on the highest dose of prozac (80 mg) for well over 20 years, plus the addition of clonazapam (.5mg) at night for insomnia off and on for 6 years. I have just read that increased serotonin can cause hynopomic auditory and visual hallucinations. I intend to speak to my psychiatrist about changing that medication around. My previous psychiatrist was so happy that my severe depression lessened considerably, that he did not want to change me to another SSRI. I have come off of clonazepam a few times, only to return to it because my psychiatrist says, if I don’t sleep I’ll really be in trouble so this is the lesser of the two evils. I’m at my witts end. If I take the .5 mg of clonazepam I go to sleep pretty quickly only to wake up a couple hours later with all these hynopompic auditory and visual hallucinations. I always turn on the light and they go away. I’m concerned about the auditory hallucinations which I believe are more related to tinnutis/musical ear syndrome. Except, within the last 2 years, these auditory hallucinations have become far worse and are hynogogic as well as hynopomic. I continually hear either a baritone male singer, singing very loudly, to the point I cannot go to sleep and then when I awake to the hypnopomic hallucinations, the auditory male voice comes back. If I’ve taken a clonazepam, I can fall back to sleep, thank GOD. Otherwise I would get no sleep. These hypnopompic auditory and visual hallucinations wake me several times a night, every night. This causes me to sleep a lot, in order to work the sleep in around the hallucinations! I am miserable. Any comments,advice would be welcomed since so far my psychiatrists have “poo-pooed” all of it, including that a maximum dose of prozac and .5mg of clonezapam are the causes.

  11. Amy Reply

    I have been reading these and they all sound so terrifying my god… Anyways, this is my first time looking this up because I am so confused about what’s happening. Last night was the 3rd time. I think I woke up in the middle of the night and there were like a bunch of spiders in my bed so I raced out of bed and went to my living room couch. I sat there and I think slept for a little bit then I thought I was dreaming or something and I just wanted to go back to bed so I gathered up the courage and just went back to my bed. Like I said, this was the third time- the first time was around mid 2019 and it was a long white snake, second time was maybe a couple weeks ago and wasn’t as many spiders… It’s very terrifying and if it happens again I’ll try to do something about it. Has this happened to anyone else?

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