If you’ve ever had something strange happen when trying to fall asleep, you’re definitely not alone. “People commonly report ‘weird’ things during or surrounding sleep,” says Dr. Stephanie Stahl, a sleep medicine physician at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine. The good news: “Many of these experiences are not concerning, especially if they occur infrequently,” Stahl says.
That said, some of the strange sensations and experiences that happen in our sleep can create anxiety, which might make it harder to get the sleep you need, according to Frida Rångtell, PhD, sleep educator and advisor at Sleep Cycle. To better understand what’s worth being concerned about and what’s totally normal, sleep experts have outlined some of the most commonly-cited “strange” sleep problems, plus what you can do about them.
1. YOUR BODY SUDDENLY TWITCHES OR “JERKS” AS YOU’RE FALLING ASLEEP
These are known as hypnic or hypnagogic jerks and are caused by brief muscle contractions that sometimes happen as you fall asleep. “Hypnic jerks are very common, with about 2/3 of people experiencing them at some point,’ Stahl says.
Interestingly, we don’t know what exactly causes them or where they originate in the brain, according to Dr. Daniel Rifkin, a board-certified sleep specialist and CEO of Ognomy. “Most believe that it’s the brain signals that cause you to relax your muscles getting crossed as you fall asleep,” he explains. “They’re very quick and usually last less than a second. They can be associated with a feeling of falling or even a shock-like feeling.”
Insufficient sleep, excessive caffeine use, sleep apnea, emotional stress or intense exercise may cause hypnic jerks, Stahl adds.
What to do about it: It’s probably not necessary to do anything, experts say. “If you experience hypnic jerks often and feel that they disturb your sleep, I would suggest looking over your sleep routine and sleep hygiene to see if there is anything in your daily activities that can be done differently to help increase chances of better sleep,” Rångtell says. If that doesn’t help, she suggests consulting with your health care provider.
Adjusting your mindset around hypnic jerks can also be helpful, says Lauri Leadley, a clinical sleep educator and founder of Valley Sleep Center. “If you experience these, realize that the body is falling asleep. Focus on breathing and relaxing, knowing that your brain and body is doing what it’s supposed to. Reframing this as a positive experience will lead to a better night’s sleep.”
2. YOU HEAR OR SEE THINGS AS YOU’RE FALLING ASLEEP
“Hearing noises or seeing things as you fall asleep or wake up are called sleep-related hallucinations,” Stahl says. These can happen while you’re falling asleep (hypnagogic hallucinations) or upon awakening (hypnopompic hallucinations). “The easiest way to think about these sleep-wake transition hallucinations is that your brain is part awake and part asleep at the same time,” Rifkin explains.
For most people, hallucinations can happen when you’re entering REM sleep, but sometimes, they happen in other sleep stages when you still have some awareness of being awake, Stahl notes — which can be unsettling.
What to do about it: Probably nothing. Because sleep hallucinations may be more likely when you’re exhausted, getting caught up on rest can help. But if this happens frequently or affects your sleep, it could be a good idea to check in with a sleep specialist, Rifkin says.
3. YOUR LEGS FEEL “ITCHY” OR IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP STILL AT NIGHT
“Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is very common, occurs close to bedtime, and is associated with a weird, almost indescribable feeling in your legs or arms that makes you want to move to relieve the sensation,” Rifkin says.
Causes of restless legs syndrome include iron deficiency, kidney disease and many medications including most antidepressants as well as antihistamines, or the use of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, according to Stahl. There may also be a genetic component, Rifkin notes. People with genetic RLS may remember their mom or dad walking around the house at night.
What to do about it: If RLS is happening rarely, try increasing your dietary iron as a first step, Rifkin recommends. “If RLS is very frequent and prevents you from falling asleep or getting adequate sleep, then please seek help.” Most likely, you’ll get a physical exam and laboratory testing to uncover the underlying cause.
4. YOU WAKE UP FROM A DREAM FEELING PARALYZED
This is called sleep paralysis, and it can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Sleep paralysis can be a really frightening experience, but we do know why it happens. “During REM sleep, our brain tells most of our muscles to stop moving. If the brain didn’t stop these muscles, we would act out our dreams throughout the night,” Stahl explains. Sometimes, when we wake up from REM sleep, the signal telling our muscles not to move is still there, which means we can’t move anything except our eyes and the muscles we use to breathe.
What to do about it: Despite how scary it can be, sleep paralysis is generally not harmful. “It usually passes on its own after a period of time, but you can try to decrease the risk of episodes by keeping a regular sleep schedule and healthy sleep routine, as well as sleeping in a position other than on your back,” Rångtell says. ”If you have recurrent episodes, you perceive that sleep paralysis is often in your way of getting good sleep, or you feel very anxious about sleeping because of sleep paralysis, I suggest consulting with a medical professional.”
5. YOU HEAR A LOUD “BANG” AS YOU FALL ASLEEP OR WAKE UP
This is another seemingly-scary one, but it’s actually completely normal. “Exploding head syndrome is the sense of a sudden, loud banging or exploding noise at sleep onset or upon waking,” Stahl says. Often, it’s related to stress or not getting enough sleep.
What to do about it: Rifkin recommends rolling over and trying to get back to sleep if this happens to you. “If the ‘bangs’ are recurring repetitively or they’re preventing you from sleeping, sometimes further evaluation will be necessary. Stress, excessive exercise, too many energy drinks or cups of coffee, and other lifestyle causes should be examined first.”
6. YOU ACT OUT YOUR DREAMS
“For example, if you’re dreaming of being in a football game, you might tackle your dresser or throw your bed partner off to the side,” Rifkin says. This happens during REM sleep when the signal that stops your muscles from working (the same one that causes sleep paralysis) doesn’t work properly. Not only can this phenomenon, known as REM behavior disorder (RBD) be dangerous for you, it can also be dangerous for those around you.
What to do about it: Unlike most of the other phenomena on this list, acting out your dreams warrants a trip to your doctor and/or a sleep specialist. “It’s important to seek a specialist for a thorough neurological exam as RBD can be associated with certain neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s disease,” Rifkin says.
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