I’m an expert – here’s how you can avoid suffering that terrifying feeling that you’re falling in your sleep
- The dropping sensation and muscle spasm can be caused by sleep deprivation
- Experts say alcohol, caffeine and other simulants can lead to hypnagogic jerks
Just as you’re drifting off to a peaceful sleep, you’re rudely awoken by a sudden jolt and panic.
Although it really felt like you were plummeting to your death, you accept it was just a figment of your imagination.
That terrifying feeling — usually accompanied by twitching in the legs and arms — is called a ‘hypnagogic jerk’.
But, did you know there’s ways you can potentially prevent these random nocturnal body hiccups?
Sleep starts can contribute to sleep deprivation and in turn, this can cause even more sleep starts
Track sleep trends
Anyone can experience a hypnagogic jerk, also commonly known as ‘hypnic jerk’ or ‘sleep starts’. Bedding company Simba found more than two-thirds of Brits surveyed have experienced the disturbance.
It happens during the transitional stage between wakefulness and sleep — when the heart rate decreases, breathing slows down and the muscles relax.
Medically, it is classified as myoclonus — a brief involuntary twitching or jerking of a muscle group or group of muscles.
‘Hypnic jerks can affect the whole body or just the legs,’ said Lisa Artis, deputy chief executive officer at The Sleep Charity. ‘At the same time you may also feel like you’re falling, you may experience a loud noise or a flash of light.’
Even though they are ‘perfectly normal’, tracking when they happen could reveal what is causing them, she said.
What are hypnagogic jerks?
Hypnagogic jerks, or sleep starts, are classified as a type of myoclonus, a brief involuntary twitching or jerking of a muscle group or group of muscles.
Sleep starts tend to wake you in the transition from stage one to stage two sleep.
Your heartbeat slows, as does your breathing, and your muscles start to unwind – which is when it is common to experience a hypnic jerk which may or may not be accompanied by a visual hallucination.
What causes hypnic jerks, and can they be prevented?
The exact mechanisms underlying sleep starts and myoclonus are not yet fully understood.
But excessive caffeine intake, and physical and emotional stress can increase their frequency, experts say.
Some scientists believe that the brain misinterprets your body state accurately when you start to go to sleep. It ‘thinks’ you’re still awake but notices your muscles aren’t moving, so sends signals to initiate them.
While they can be startling, hypnic jerks are completely normal, extremely common, and are rarely a sign of any underlying condition, according to experts.
They are not a neurological disorder.
Source: The Sleep Charity and Simba
Ms Artis recommends that people note down the dates when sleep starts occur in a phone or diary, along with whether they have had alcohol, coffee or stimulating drugs — all of which can increase the chance of them happening.
Also, noting stress levels and types and times of exercise can help flush out any patterns and triggers, according to the sleep charity.
People can become stressed because of sleep starts.
This can contribute to sleep deprivation and, in turn, cause even more to occur.
‘It’s really important to ensure that you get good quality sleep as fatigue or sleep deprivation may also increase your risk of hypnic jerks,’ said Ms Artis.
So, if your mind is racing as it hits the pillow, try and breathe and let go of your negative thoughts from the day and invite peaceful and pleasant images in, she advises.
This can help soothe the mind and relax the body, helping with drifting off to sleep.
On top of this, relaxing the body may ease that transition into sleep, making your muscles less likely to twitch.
Don’t exercise close to bed time
Exercising too close to hitting the sack can increase the risk of sleep starts, it is thought.
Winding down and aiming to finish your workout at least two to three hours before going to bed will help you drift off to sleep, according to Ms Artis.
But how hard you train can also play a part in sleep.
You may think working hard at the gym will just make you tired.
However, if your evening routine involves things like running, high intensity interval training (HIIT), bodypump or bodycombat, it’s going to be difficult for your body and muscles to slow down and relax, since it puts them under more stress.
Moving your exercise routine to the morning can help with this, but so can doing lower impact sessions in the evening.
Swimming, walking, pilates, or yoga — which focus on breathing and stretching — may help you relax and prevent sleep starts, the charity says.
Winding down and aiming to finish your work outs at least two to three hours before going to bed will help you drift off to sleep, according to The Sleep Charity
Block out sunlight
Getting good quality sleep is vital for your body to function normally and prevent you from experiencing these night jerks, experts also think.
Ensuring the bedroom is cool, dark and quiet before bed helps you get good quality sleep, according to the sleep charity.
Heat, light and noise can impact our ability to nod off and increase the chances of waking during the night and experiencing sleep starts.
This might mean changing up your duvet between seasons to avoid overheating and investing in black-out curtains or blinds during the summer months when it gets lighter earlier, the sleep charity says.
Switch to decaf
Stimulants can interfere with your sleep and increase the frequency of sleep starts.
Switching to decaf eight hours before you go to bed can help you avoid hypnagogic jerks, according to the sleep charity.
Drinking low or alcohol free drinks in this window can also help stop night time waking’s and sleep starts, experts say.
Tips on how to get to sleep and sleep better
Insomnia means you regularly have problems sleeping. It can get better by changing your sleeping habits
One in three adults in the UK and almost half of US adults suffer with insomnia, with millions more reporting sleepless nights.
Long-term sleep deprivation can cause obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Insomnia can be caused by stress, anxiety, alcohol, caffeine or nicotine, noise, shift work and jet lag.
If you regularly have problems sleeping, there are simple ways to improve your sleep hygiene.
Keep regular sleep hours
- Try going to bed when you feel tired and getting up at the same time each day.
Create a restful space
- Dark, quiet and cool environments generally make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Exercise is good for your physical health and your mind. It can also help you sleep better. Just don’t do vigorous exercise too close to your bedtime.
Don’t force it
- If you find yourself unable to get to sleep, get up and do something relaxing for a bit. Then get back into bed when you feel a bit sleepier.
Write down your worries
- If you find your worries keep you up at night, try writing them down before going to bed.
Ease off the caffeine
- Alcohol and caffeine can stop you from falling asleep and having a deep sleep. Cutting down on caffeine close to bedtime and alcoholic drinks could help you dose off.
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