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Weird Sensations When Falling Asleep

When we go to bed, it’s easy to assume that we drift off to sleep and there’s a clear distinction between our conscious and unconscious states. However, the brain undergoes a shutdown process as we enter sleep mode, and if we have poor sleep hygiene, acute stress, or chemical imbalances, we could experience brainwave dysregulation1. As a result, we might experience odd sensations at bedtime.

Weird Feelings When Trying to Fall Asleep

Breathing Difficulties

Difficulty breathing when drifting off to sleep isn’t entirely uncommon, and one cause could be central sleep apnea. This occurs when the brain doesn’t transmit2 the proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing. Sometimes, you may feel tightness in your chest, while other times it could feel as though you’re choking. It may seem like there’s something caught in the back of your throat or your mouth has become excessively dry.2

Get More Info: Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders

Sinking, Dropping, or Falling

Feeling like you’re sinking, dropping, or falling can be particularly startling. These sensations can jar you from the brink of sleep into being wide awake. Usually, you’ll be jolted awake by the sensation that you’re dropping off a cliff or that you’ve just had a fall and are about to experience a painful landing.

The term for this is “sleep myoclonus3” or “hypnic myoclonus,” and it occurs when your brain is shifting from one sleep phase to another. The physical jerks that happen as a result are referred to as “hypnagogic jerks,” and they most often appear during the light stage of sleep right as you’re drifting off.

A Throbbing Headache

Hypnic headaches4 are rare, and they are characterized by frequent headaches that only occur during sleep. They’re sometimes referred to as “alarm clock” headaches due to the fact they occur at night and jolt a sleeper awake. They can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and can significantly impair your ability to rest.4

A Sense of Panic or Worry

Nocturnal panic attacks5 or worry as you’re falling asleep often occur with no clear trigger, but they can awaken you suddenly. Similar to daytime panic attacks, you could experience a racing heartbeat, sweating, or hyperventilation. Although they typically only last a few minutes, panic attacks can interrupt your sleep long after they are over. While they can be extremely uncomfortable and scary, they are typically not dangerous.5

The exact cause of nocturnal panic attacks is not known, but underlying factors such as genetics, anxiety, sleep disorders, or thyroid problems may contribute to them.5

Itchy Sensations

When we fall asleep, our brain and body are in constant communication as “shutdown mode” ensues. Itching during sleep6 may be due to an underlying dermatological disease, or it may be a symptom of parasomnia (sleep disorder). Few studies have been done about this issue, and while recordings have been made observing sleep fragmentation, skin injury, intermittent awakenings, scars, and keloid formation, the cause (and potential treatment) remains speculative.6

Brain Zaps

Brain zaps7 are often described as a jolt or a “buzz in the head.” They may be experienced in conjunction with8 vertigo, confusion, or even a crackle or “whooshing” sound. They are often observed upon the discontinuation of antidepressants, so going off this type of medication is important to do under the guidance of a medical professional.7

You may experience brain zaps when withdrawing from MDMA9 (ecstasy), or Adderall10. Both of these impact your serotonin levels (among several other neurochemicals).9, 10 Withdrawing from medications that increase the body’s levels of GABA11 can also cause brain zaps, as GABA is used in the brain to “calm” activity. It is believed that very low levels of GABA can lead to poor seizure control, which may feel like brain zaps.

What Causes Weird Sensations When Falling Asleep?


Heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath are all symptoms of an anxiety attack12. There are other signs as well, but these are a few of the most common. Naturally, if you’re in the throes of a panic attack while you’re going to bed, it’s going to keep you awake.

Even if you’re not experiencing a full-on panic attack, generalized anxiety disorder13 can easily keep you awake, especially if you develop what is called “sleep anxiety14”. This is when somebody develops anxiety around bedtime, often a severe nervousness about going to sleep or a fear of not being able to go to sleep.12 

Learn More: Anxiety and Sleep

Sleep Disorder

You may be experiencing a sleep disorder that’s causing odd feelings to occur while you’re trying to fall asleep. For example, sleep apnea could cause shortness of breath.

The good news is that addressing the source of the sleep disorder could make these issues go away, so be sure to speak to your doctor if you feel you may have one.

Find Out More: The Most Common Sleep Disorders

Sleep Deprivation

Whether you’re on an unconventional schedule or you have insomnia, sleep deprivation could trigger all sorts of unexpected consequences, including all of the strange feelings described above. 

When we don’t get enough sleep, the brain’s connections are impacted15. This is because sleep deprivation triggers brain cells called “astrocytes” to start breaking down various brain connections, which can lead to various sleep deprivation-related brain disorders and odd sensations.15

Read More: Surprising Link Between Sleep Deprivation & Psychosis

Sleeping Environment

When you’re in an unfamiliar place, like a hotel or friend’s house, your body is on high alert16 and you’re likely to feel more anxious. This heightened anxiety could then trigger strange feelings and electrical head shocks, which is referred to as  “The First Night Effect.”16 

If you tend to experience this when you’re in a strange room, try traveling with something that reminds you of your bedroom at home, like a pillow or familiar blanket, to help ease your mind.


Some illnesses and parasites could be responsible for odd sleep sensations. Lyme disease17, for example, could cause sleep issues like insomnia, hallucinogenic dreams, or panic attacks if the disease is serious enough. Parasites could also be the culprit. Not only can various types of parasites cause insomnia18 and disturbances to sleep, but they can also cause abnormalities in the brain.

Drugs and Alcohol

Certain addictive drugs and alcohol have a disruptive effect on sleep19, potentially impacting your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and spend enough time in each stage of sleep.

What’s more, is that certain drugs and alcohol raise your brain’s levels of both serotonin20 and GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid21, temporarily. When the levels crash back down, this could cause all sorts of strange sensations, including brain zaps, and certainly increase your level of anxiety.21


Caffeine is considered to be a stimulant, and it generally stays in the system anywhere from two to 10 hours22. That said, some research shows that it could have residual effects for up to 20 hours after consumption. This means this stimulant undoubtedly has an impact on your sleep. In fact, one of the most common side effects of caffeine is sleep deprivation.22

As we’ve seen already, sleep deprivation on its own can lead to strange sensations when falling asleep, and caffeine, in particular, has been linked to restless leg syndrome23, headaches, anxiety, and, of course, insomnia.22

What Causes Brain Zaps?

One of the primary causes is withdrawal from medications that regulate serotonin and GABA levels in the brain. So, if you’ve recently stopped taking an antidepressant, benzodiazepines (for muscle relaxation and anxiety), MDMA (also known as ecstasy), or Adderall (for ADD and ADHD), then you are more likely to experience these zaps.

You probably already know that serotonin is a happiness and sleep chemical, but you might not have heard of GABA before reading this article. It stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid, and its role in the brain is to “calm” activity in the brain. It’s believed that low or insufficient levels of GABA could cause a mild (not threatening) seizure that is, in reality, a brain zap.

How to Reduce Nighttime Anxiety

Identify Your Worries

Since anxiety is a known trigger, make an effort to reduce the amount that you worry, especially before bed. Think about what’s causing you to feel this way and write down ideas for solutions.

Journaling, meditation, and exercise are all great anxiety management tools. Even a short walk around the block alone could make a significant difference in your mood.


Meditation is an effective way to clear the mind and ease anxiety. You can listen to free guided meditation videos on YouTube or through apps like HeadSpace and Insight Timer. If you prefer something unique, autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos could trigger pleasant sensations and help you fall asleep without incident.

Need more info? Learn how to meditate before sleep here.

Seek Professional Help

If these weird feelings and head shocks occur nightly and are affecting your ability to sleep, talk with your physician. There could be an underlying problem, or you may need to resume taking medication if you’ve recently stopped a prescription. Working with a licensed psychiatrist if you have a chemical disorder or your primary care physician could be the best place to start for more general questions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do I get weird sensations when I’m falling asleep?

Sensations like falling, jerking awake, panic, restless legs, and even itching are relatively common when falling asleep. These may be due to underlying stress or anxiety, a sleep disorder like restless leg syndrome, withdrawal from certain drugs or medications, sleep deprivation, an illness, or too much alcohol or caffeine.

If the weird sensations you’re experiencing are regular or disrupting your sleep, it doesn’t hurt to speak to your doctor about them. They may ask you to modify your diet, habits, or medications.

What are the symptoms of a neurological sleep disorder?

A neurological sleep disorder24 is when a neurological condition disrupts the brain’s ability to control sleep and wakefulness. Examples include central sleep apnea, central nervous system hypersomnia, circadian rhythm disorders, narcolepsy, parasomnias, REM sleep behavior disorders, and fatal familial insomnia.24

Depending on what the neurological sleep disorder is, symptoms will vary widely. For example, symptoms of central sleep apnea include snoring, insomnia, and difficulty breathing through the night.2 Symptoms of parasomnias, on the other hand, might include talking or walking in your sleep, or night terrors.

If you are exhibiting strange behaviors or experiencing strange sensations during sleep, you should speak to your doctor who may refer you to a sleep specialist. A sleep study can help to determine whether you’re experiencing something neurological or not.

Why do I get strange thoughts when falling asleep?

When the brain shifts from wakefulness to sleep, it is common to experience strange, often random thoughts, see an array of images, or experience odd, short dreams. These hypnagogic hallucinations25 may be trippy, but they’re quite normal and safe.

Additionally, many people experience an uptick in their levels of anxiety and worry at night, which could account for strange, intrusive thoughts when falling asleep.12

Rachael Gilpin

Rachael Gilpin

Content Writer

About Author

Rachael is a content writer for Sleep Advisor who loves combining her enthusiasm for writing and wellness.

Back Sleeper


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