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What Causes Hypnagogic Hallucinations?

By C. Daw
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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There could be a number of causes of hypnagogic hallucinations, including side effects of drug addiction, ingesting or inhaling various toxic substances, and sometimes prescription or over the counter medications. Most commonly these hallucinations are experienced by individuals who are victims of various sleep disorders, or have some psychological problems, in the past or at present. Sleep paralysis could also be the reason for the hypnagogic hallucinations, which might occur simultaneously or separately. Sleep paralysis is the state where the mind awakens, preventing the person from falling into a deep enough of a sleep to actually dream.

Hypnagogic hallucinations are referred to as the hallucinations that occur either right before going to sleep or just before waking up. These can be regarded as the problems that people feel or experience between sleeping and waking. They include vivid sensations, jerking of the body to suddenly wake up, seeing large or indifferent images that seem unreal, and hearing voices just before going to sleep. These hallucinations are more common in young people, especially in children, and they might cause serious problems if they persist for a long period of time so a consultation with a medical provider should be scheduled.

As with many other types of mental problems, drug addictions can cause these hallucinations to occur. Prescription drugs, as well as ingesting or inhaling toxic substances, are also included in this section because they all cause changes to the brain and how it functions. The chemicals that are used by the brain are altered into such a state as to cause these types of hallucinations. There are also various types of mental disorders that can cause the same types of reactions within the brain, which is why it is imperative to seek professional help when hypnagogic hallucinations occur. Whether it is a drug problem or a mental health issue, the cause of the chemical changes needs to be found and corrected.

The final cause for these hallucinations can be as simple as head or back injuries that are impinging the nerves that lead into the brain. A head or spinal injury can also cause the chemicals within the brain to stop functioning properly, especially if specific nerves are pinched. As stated before, that is why a medical provider must be consulted when hypnagogic hallucinations become a problem. Even though the basic symptoms may be nothing more than a nuisance, the underlying problem may be more serious and it should be isolated and eliminated.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon996234 — On Jul 27, 2016

I awake on average three times a month to seeing people starring at me from my bedside. It's never people I recognize. My heart races every time. What I can't understand is why are they always staring over me not just doing various things around the room. They are only there a few seconds then gone. I have definitely been awake as I have on occasion been seeing them still while talking to my husband. Only started happening six years ago after my third child was born. Makes me worry I might have a brain tumor or something.

By anon324214 — On Mar 09, 2013

I get these crazy things too. Always when I am very drowsy, and only at night. If the room is well lit, I won't get them at all, drowsy or not. They are worse when I don't get enough sleep, but sometimes I'll get them even when I've been sleeping fine. Usually I'll get the same one for a string of time and then it will switch to something else. For awhile it was a large, black wasp that would fly at me. Then it was just a dark round shape that would appear to move across my field of vision before disappearing. I've seen spiders, I've seen objects, like a floating piece of paper with a photograph on it. Most of them move across my field of vision before they disappear and they always only last a couple of seconds. I know they aren't real. I've never done drugs. I'm not narcoleptic. Never suffered from a brain injury that I know of. I do have migraines on very rare occasions. They don't seem to correlate with the hallucinations. No history of psychosis. I had panic attacks as a teenager but haven't suffered from anxiety in years. These things are just downright weird.

By anon315357 — On Jan 23, 2013

I had terrible nightmares when I was 1- 3 years old. They were so creepy that I still remember them.

Now 20 years later, I suffer from this Hypnagogic stuff. It makes sense to me now.

By shell4life — On Jul 29, 2011

I have a friend who experiences hypnagogic hallucinations, but she does not know why. She does not have narcolepsy, and she does not take any drugs. When she went to a sleep center, they determined that she was twitching in her sleep, but they thought it was restless leg syndrome. They put her on drugs for that, but it didn’t help.

Sometimes she wakes her husband up and asks him who he is and why he is in her bed. She wakes up screaming at times, thinking that spiders are on her arms. No doctor has been able to figure out why she is having these hallucinations.

By Oceana — On Jul 29, 2011

I used to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. When I tried to fall asleep, I would have involuntary jerks and see images that I now believe after reading this article were hypnagogic hallucinations.

Everyday life was a struggle for me. I battled with my thoughts and fears. When I laid down to sleep, I usually was so tired that my body tried to pass out while my mind kept on working. My legs and arms often jerked very hard and brought me out of sleep.

Sometimes, I would see a person’s face coming toward me very quickly. It would startle me awake. It wasn’t always someone I knew. Sometimes the faces were totally new to me. The speed with which they approached me frightened my body out of rest.

By wavy58 — On Jul 28, 2011

Everyone knew that my uncle had mental problems. He seemed to walk around disturbed and conflicted all the time. His wife told us that he had started having hypnagogic hallucinations in the form of negative voices.

He told her that the voices would call him bad names and tell him he was worthless. They would criticize his work, his worth as a husband, and his value as a person. He would argue with them out loud.

She took him to a psychiatrist soon after he started arguing with himself. The psychiatrist factored the hypnagogic hallucinations into his diagnosis of schizophrenia.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 27, 2011

As a child, I experienced sleep terrors. That’s what my mom told me they were called, but this was because I could not say hypnagogic hallucinations, which is what my doctor called them.

I would be lying in bed when I would hear the pounding sound. Something was getting closer to me. I would see monsters in the curtains. They were clearly defined, and the sound was a mixture of nearing footsteps and drone voices.

My mom later figured out that the pounding noise was my own heartbeat. She covered my ears and made me listen to it. I said, “That’s it! That’s the monster!” Once she convinced me that it truly was my heart, I stopped having the night terrors.

By Sinbad — On Jul 27, 2011

@Tomislav - I had not heard that, but I had heard narcoleptics can experience cataplexy which is a little different from hallucinations but a little more like sleep disorder paralysis.

What happens with cataplexy is sometimes when you have a strong emotion you simply lose muscle tone. And that is the reason it is also associated with narcolepsy; narcoleptics often fall asleep after big emotions.

Interesting stuff, but I am sure scary for people who might have this occur over and over again. I have never seen a person have hypnagogic hallucinations (I always want to spell it hypnogogic hallucinations, because that is how I pronounce it - but I am not even sure I am pronouncing it right)!

By Tomislav — On Jul 27, 2011

I did not know young people can have this problem. I did know people who were on drugs could - my friend had been put on a certain medication drug, I can't remember which one, but it was after she gave birth.

And boy, did she have a reaction. She says she doesn't remember who came to visit her while she was in the hospital and she was having hallucinations. But she said they were awful!

I have mild narcolepsy (I use diet and exercise to control it since it is a mild case) but I have heard that narcolepsy can involve hallucinations. Has anyone else heard this?

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