Feeling like you are falling

The feeling of falling asleep while falling asleep: everyone has experienced this before. Some people suffer from it every day, while others rarely experience it. Although it is a completely harmless phenomenon, it can cause startle reactions that make the heart beat faster and make it more difficult to fall asleep again. With a bit of bad luck it may even happen more often in a row. It is called a temporal breech or a hypnagogic jerk.

The feeling that you are falling

Everyone has experienced it: lying in bed and suddenly feeling like you are falling. The arms or legs are extended and this feels like a startling movement. Sometimes it happens every evening/night and even twice in a row, and then it doesn’t bother you for nights. It always comes just as you’re just starting to fall asleep. Some call it a sleep breech.

Hypnagogic shock

The feeling of falling is called a hypnagogic shock. It is often said that it only occurs in people who are overtired, but it is just as common in people who are simply tired and fall asleep. On average, it occurs more often in adults than in children. Children also fall asleep much faster than adults. In children, similar jerks are seen during early sleep, but few children are startled awake by this.

Cause

The cause can be found in the brain. When we fall asleep, our muscles relax and our consciousness disappears. In some cases, this condition is misinterpreted by the brain (misjudgment). The brain registers a fall and signals the muscles by extending the limbs to break or absorb the fall. The result is an involuntary contraction of the muscles of the arms and/or legs. This movement immediately wakes us up, the heart rate increases and breathing speeds up. This often lasts a few seconds and we become calmer again, after which we simply fall asleep again.
It is sometimes thought that a hypnagogic shock is part of the process of falling asleep. This is not the case, otherwise everyone would have this every day. It has to do with a misunderstanding in the brain that often occurs with one person and never or rarely with another. However, it occurs more often in people who are under pressure or dealing with stress. Relaxation of the muscles while falling asleep can then send the wrong signal to the brain. Another cause is mini REM sleep, in which light dreaming occurs and the body responds to this with movements. Normally, during deep REM sleep, the muscles are paralyzed and we do not move along with our dreams. During this mini REM sleep, the muscles are not yet completely switched off and are therefore able to move.
The hypnagogic jerk should not be confused with conditions involving involuntary muscle twitching, such as spasticity, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or epilepsy. In these cases, the symptoms also occur during the day. This has nothing to do with falling asleep. Often other symptoms are also present. Moreover, spasticity mainly occurs during exercise and less during rest.

Symptoms

It is clearly noticeable for the roommate/bed partner. The person suddenly jerks their arms or legs and often wakes up with a start. Sometimes the person even sits up in bed, but usually goes back to sleep after looking up in surprise for a moment. But what do you notice? First you fall asleep. This is palpable because the eyes become heavy, the limbs become heavy and thoughts disappear into the background. Suddenly you are startled by the arms and/or legs making a movement. At the same time, you may have had some kind of dream or thought that caused you to fall (mini REM sleep). You immediately wake up and sometimes you feel your heart beating in your throat from fear. Rest assured: there is nothing wrong, you are safe in bed. Take a deep breath and fall asleep again. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens a second time and in some people even a third or fourth time. If it continues to bother you often, i.e. several times per evening/night and daily, then something else may be going on. It is then wise to discuss the complaints with your GP. Children who often have involuntary muscle twitches that also occur during the day should also be examined.

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