Have you ever been in bed just about to drift off and sleep when your body shakes you awake, or you feel a falling sensation and your heart starts racing? If this happens to you, you might sometimes feel anxious going back to sleep. It may scare you to lay in bed at night as the shock you feel through this natural phenomenon is unpleasant. What you might not realize is that thousands of people around the world suffer from this very experience. This phenomenon has a name – Hypnic Jerks.
The hypnic jerk can be defined as an “involuntary twitch” that happens just as you are about to fall asleep. You may experience hypnic jerk symptoms other than the initial twitch or shudder which include a racing heartbeat, quickened breathing, sweating and even a feeling of shock as if you have narrowly missed being hit by a car or falling off a cliff edge.
It is most commonly found in people with irregular sleep cycles – those who work all night long or parents of newborn babies. Even people who suffer from insomnia or who are unable to sleep right through the night will suffer from this strange phenomenon at some stage in their lifetime. However, it is not restricted to only to such people. This is a rare experience that also happens to those who are completely healthy.
What Causes It and Why Does It Happen?
There are a lot of theories as to the cause of hypnic jerks and no one has yet found a definitive answer to this problem. However, there is some relation that has been found between hypnic jerks being experienced because of anxiety, coffee intake, and stressful issues and even exercising too late in the night.
Another possible cause of the falling sensation that goes alongside hypnic jerks is the brain misunderstanding what is happening. As your muscles relax when you lay down to go to sleep, the brain can misinterpret the muscles relaxing as the fact that your body is actually falling. Therefore your brain panics and sends signals to your muscles to wake up and hang on! That is what the hypnic jerk is.
Being very tired or over exhausted is another cause of this jerking before sleep which can make it even more frustrating for the sufferer as they may desperately want to get to sleep but are disrupted by the twitching.
Are Hypnic Jerks a Sleep Disorder?
Alone, this feeling is not a sleep disorder but as explained above it may be a result of another sleep disorder or it may well cause you to suffer one. Constant sleep disruptions can cause anxiety and panic attacks. The fear of suffering a hypnic jerk as you fall asleep can set off other problems with your sleep and cause disturbances or difficulty sleeping.
While a hypnic jerk in itself isn’t a sleep disorder, it can be easily confused with a chronic and quite dangerous sleep disorder called sleep apnea. This is where your breathing and airways becomes obstructed as the muscle and tissue in your throat relaxes and can block your airways for ten seconds or more. This can cause you to jerk awake as your brain reacts to the lack of oxygen coming through and sends a panic signal to your limbs.
Some lifestyle changes that can help you cope with problems that disrupt your sleep
Try videoing yourself or ask for a consultation at a sleep clinic to get to the bottom of the problem. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to cancer, strokes or even cause death so if you suspect this might be the cause of your hypnic jerks then it is best to see a specialist.
Keeping a journal is another thing you can do to tackle anxiety and it will also help you identify any triggers. As you write down your thoughts from the day, physically imagine them leaving your mind and resting onto the paper. That way you are mentally clearing your mind before bed which will stop your brooding and over thinking the day. If there are specific things you are worrying about and things you can’t find a solution for, writing them down can also help.
Make a list of things you are concerned about before bed and then even if you haven’t found a solution you can put them out of your mind in the knowledge that they are safely written down and can be dealt with in the morning.
Identifying when your thoughts become repetitive and unhealthy is a good technique to get your mind out of that automatic anxiety setting. If you are really struggling, seek a therapist and talk through your problems.
Distracting yourself also works, read a book or listen to an audiobook on a low volume through headphones so you can concentrate on something else which will help you go to sleep. Meditation, mindfulness and even yoga are also great ways to combat anxiety and, as a result, lessen the risk of suffering hypnic jerks.
How to Stop Hypnic Jerks
The good news is, there are lots of things you can do to treat hypnic jerks, and reduce their occurrence. Running through the treatments one by one, you should be able to isolate what aggravates your problem the most and then tackle it to get yourself back to a peaceful night. For the most part, these are all homeopathic treatments so there is no fear of side effects.
Caffeine has proven to be one of the causes of hypnic jerks. Even a coffee in the afternoon can affect your sleep overnight and a lack of sleep can cause hypnic jerks. Try to keep caffeine to a minimum and if you really must have it then go for a morning coffee and try to avoid another caffeine boost past about midday.
Exercising too close to bedtime can wind your body up and tense your muscles which is one of the known causes of hypnic jerks. Try to exercise in the morning or only do a relaxing workout, such as yoga or pilates, in the evening instead of going for a run or doing an intensive workout.
Adopt some relaxation techniques and make them part of your daily routine. For example, warm baths, listening to a piece of music or audiobook, drinking a relaxing brew such as chamomile, peppermint or cocoa and cutting out screen time or emailing for an hour before bedtime. You should also make sure your bedroom is a relaxing and calm sleep environment.
Get rid of the TV, make sure it is at the right temperature and your bed is free from too many pillows or blankets that might mean you’re sleeping in an awkward position. Ban phones, tablets or other electronic devices and if you really need a distraction get a book or a coloring book to use before you go to sleep.
Try going to bed an hour before you need to actually go to sleep, this gives you time to unwind without feeling that all too familiar pressure of “needing” to go straight to sleep in order to get the set eight hours. Magnesium and calcium supplements can also help your muscles relax so try to make sure you get plenty in your diet or take a recommended supplement.
This is easy to say and hard to do but try not to let yourself get too fatigued. Make sure you plan ahead and if you do have a long day and not much sleep, try your hardest to build in some time to catch up and get back on track with your sleep. In the long term, this will cure your hypnic jerks and you will find the more sleep you have the rarer the episodes become. Also, invest in some quality bedding and a good mattress. Studies have shown that making your bed and having a cozy haven to fall asleep in dramatically improves the quality of sleep you get.