When sleep is not refreshing

“The feeling of sleepiness when you are not in bed, and can’t get there, is the meanest feeling in the world.”   C. S. Lewis

A friend of mine reported that her dreams were invading her reality.  While waking up from a deep sleep she would see things in her room that were from her dreams. For example, while dreaming about Amish people, she woke up to find a woman with a bonnet standing in her room. Within a few seconds the bonneted lady disappeared and my friend realized she was only dreaming. Another time she saw a large machine on the wall, but it quickly turned into a shadow as she woke up.

Unless you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, you probably do not experience hallucinations on a regular basis. But every now and then the average person will be caught in a world between wakefulness and sleep, resulting in an obvious distortion of reality. Psychologists call these strange phenomena hypnagogic hallucinations.

It happened to me not long ago. During a hot summer day, our kitchen was invaded by small black ants, probably looking for water. That night, as I was falling asleep in bed, I thought I could see those pesky ants crawling around on my blankets. My impression was that I was fully awake and that there was going to be another battle between me and the ants. But, when I turned on the light to start my attack, the ants completely disappeared. I remember feeling immediate relief, no ants. . . but then I was left with a very disturbing question: Was I losing my grasp on reality?

Just knowing that the ants were only dream-like hallucinations brought great relief to me, because the alternatives were 1) there were indeed ants in my bed, or 2) I was developing a psychosis. Neither of these two alternatives sounded very appealing at all.

If you ever experience a hypnagogic hallucination, my hope is that you will feel some comfort by recognizing it for what it truly is. Although many people have these strange experiences on a regular basis they certainly do not get much press or public recognition. In fact, most people have never heard of hypnagogic hallucinations, even if they have experienced them many times.

In fact, surveys have found that over 50 percent of the population report experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations on a regular basis as they fall asleep. Another 12.5 percent of people in community samples describe strange perceptions that occur while waking up, and these are referred to as hypnopompic hallucinations. In both cases the person believes themselves to be fully awake but in actuality they are in a transitional stage between sleep and wakefulness.

Sometimes these hallucinations can be very disturbing. For example, people often report seeing large spiders on the walls, feeling as if they are floating or possibly lying on the ceiling while defying gravity. Sometimes people feel paralyzed and unable to move. Other times they may feel as if someone is present with them in the bedroom or they may hear voices when no one is there. Fortunately, the hallucinations abate the moment the person gets up to turn on a light because this action helps them wake up completely.

We know that stress, broken sleep, pregnancy and certain medications make these hallucinations more likely to happen. While Job was going through his time of testing he cried out, “When I think my bed will comfort me and my couch will ease my complaint, even then you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (Job 7:13-14).  During times of trials these “visions” seem to come with greater frequency.

When left to our own devices to explain psychological phenomena such as hypnagogic hallucinations some individuals come to the conclusion that they are under demonic attack, or that they are seeing ghosts, or possibly that they are being abducted by aliens. None of these conclusions are correct, obviously. The litmus test is simply this: if it disappears when you get up and turn on the lights, then it was all of your own creation. These hallucinations are documented psychological phenomena that most people experience from time to time.

Personally, I would much rather admit to having an occasional hypnagogic hallucination rather than believe the hallucination is real.

I also find it comforting that God’s Word says He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and this applies whether we are awake or asleep. We can lie down and sleep in safety, says the psalmist (Psalm 3:5; 4:8) and we know that Jesus promises rest for the weary (Matthew 11:28-30).

So tonight while falling asleep, if you get invaded by ants, or have strangers in your room, or find yourself on the ceiling looking down at the floor, try to remember that this is only a dream, and all will be OK as soon as you turn on the light.

Dan Jenkins


— by Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D.

Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Psychological Services in Mission Valley. He is also a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. Learn more at www.lighthousespy.com

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