Strange sleep phenomena

The vulnerability of sleep has intrigued the waking mind for generations. From the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, where the killer finds his victims in their dreams, to the myth that we accidentally swallow spiders while we snooze.

And although our imaginations far outstrip reality, there are still plenty of weird things that go on while we are sleeping.

Sleep paralysis
The REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep is usually associated with vivid dreams, so our muscles are paralysed to stop us acting out our dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when there is a mix up in communication between the brain and body. Essentially, the brain wakes up but the body doesn’t. It’s usually possible to open your eyes and take in your surroundings but you can’t move. Sometimes there is dream imagery still coming through into normal consciousness, and it can be difficult to discern what is real and what you are still dreaming.

It can be a terrifying experience accompanied by powerful feelings of fear and foreboding. People have described seeing intruders or supernatural creatures in the room and a sense of being crushed by someone, or something, sitting on their chest. People can find it difficult to breathe as all the muscles associated with the control of breath are still paralysed, except for the diaphragm.

It sometimes occurs when you are sleep deprived and typically only lasts for a few seconds, but it can feel like a lot longer.

Read: Sleep symptoms to see your doctor about immediately

Hypnagogic jerk
This is the feeling of suddenly falling or tripping while you’re trying to doze off. As many as 70 per cent of the population has experienced this sleep phenomenon, a hypnagogic jerk, also known as a hypnic jerk, sleep start, sleep twitch or night start, is an involuntary flexing of the muscles that tear us from the serenity of sleep.

It seems to be more likely to occur when you’re overtired, sleep-deprived or stressed. During these times your brain enters into sleep cycles more aggressively, but your body hasn’t quite caught up. But researchers aren’t exactly sure on the reason they happen. Could it be an archaic instinct telling us that if we relax our muscles during sleep we’ll fall out of the tree?

As long as it is not accompanied by insomnia or sleep apnoea, though, it’s a normal variation of sleep.

Somnambulism is when a person carries out activities while not fully awake. The cause is still unknown, but it does seem to run in families.  This state is the opposite of sleep paralysis where the consciousness is asleep, but muscle paralysis does not occur.

It’s more common in children than adults, with around 20 per cent of youngsters likely to sleepwalk at least once.

Most sleep-related behaviours are harmless. But sleepwalking can be a dangerous issue, since you can trip, walk into something, leave your house or even get behind the wheel and not remember anything in the morning. Although sleepwalkers generally stick to simple, repeated behaviours such as sitting up in bed, fiddling with bedcovers or opening drawers, there have been reports of people eating, getting dressed and even cleaning the house.

According to old wives’ tales and horror films, you should never wake a sleepwalker. But this is actually a myth. It’s not dangerous to wake someone while they are sleepwalking, but it can lead to confusion and disorientation so try to gently lead the sleepwalker back to bed if possible.

Read: Study pinpoints the ideal amount of sleep as you age

Sleep talking
Everyone has heard of sleepwalking, but there’s a whole raft of activities some sleepers can find themselves undertaking while their consciousness is out for the count. Somniloquy can range from a mumbled word or two to full-blown conversations and the talker is unaware they’re doing it.

It’s very common and often happens within the first hour or two of sleep when your body is entering into deep stages of sleep, but there’s still enough muscle tone to produce sounds or movements that may accompany dreams.

Sleep talking is not dangerous to your physical health but may cause embarrassment or irritate your bed partner. In case you’re worried, the law accepts that anything said during sleep is not a product of a conscious or rational mind so it won’t hold up in court!

Exploding head syndrome
Similar to the hypnagogic jerk, this is a feeling of being suddenly woken by something. In the case of exploding head syndrome, it is usually an imaginary, but extremely loud explosion or bang when entering or emerging from deep sleep. Sometimes the sound seems deafening and it can be accompanied by a buzz or a flash. The phenomenon is not dangerous, but it is frightening and can hinder people from falling asleep peacefully.

Recurring dreams
Dreaming is our subconscious brain re-evaluating and processing our experiences, before filing them away as memories. Recurring dreams usually mean there is something in your life you’ve not acknowledged that is causing stress of some sort. Many people have the same, or similar dreams over and over, often with the dreams being based partly in reality. This is either lifelong or occurs over a short period until the problem or stressor is resolved or has gone away.

Another theory is that recurring dreams happen when the brain is dealing with a traumatic experience, replaying it during sleep can help you come to terms with it. In this case, the dreams tend to lessen with time.

Read: Get deeper sleep and happier dreams with these five tips

The average person urinates six or seven times a day, and although getting up to go to the bathroom is hardly unusual, comfort breaks proportionally fall much more in daylight hours. As night approaches your body clock releases extra ADH (antidiuretic hormone), which causes the kidneys to release less water, decreasing the amount of urine produced.

Sometimes this hormone system develops slowly in children, increasing the risk of bedwetting. Over time, this problem usually gets better on its own.

How well do you sleep? Have you ever experienced any of these? What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard a sleep talker say (or said yourself)?

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Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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