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You’ve probably never considered the process of how you go from being awake to asleep. Most of us assume that we simply drift off to sleep and that there’s a clear distinction between our conscious and unconscious states.
However, it turns out that the brain undergoes a shutdown process as we enter sleep mode. Scientists are still figuring out all the intricacies of this process, but one thing is clear: a lot of factors can affect how we fall asleep, ranging from the stress of our day, chemical imbalances in our brain, and even illness.
In this article, we’ll share what we’ve discovered in our research about those weird feelings you get, including brain zaps, when you’re trying to fall asleep.
Weird Feelings when Trying to Fall Asleep
A lot of strange stuff happens to us as we drift off to dreamland, including breathing difficulties. Sometimes you may feel tightness in your chest, while other times it could feel like you’re choking. It may seem like there’s something caught in the back of your throat or your mouth has become excessively dry.
Sinking or Dropping
This feeling is particularly scary and jars you from the brink of sleep into being wide awake all over again. Usually, you’ll be jolted awake by the sensation that you’re dropping off a cliff, or you’ve just had a fall and are about to experience a painful landing. The relief when you realize it wasn’t real is palpable.
A Throbbing Headache
Headaches are the worst, aren’t they? You may have felt perfectly normal, and then the second you’re horizontal the pain sets in. Even with your eyes closed, there’s an incessant throbbing. Some people describe the feeling as similar to a migraine, which if you’ve ever had one of those before is debilitating.
A Sense of Panic or Worry
It’s not just your to-do list rattling through your mind. A sense of panic or worry as you’re falling asleep is often involuntary. Some random thought in the back of your mind has suddenly decided to cut in line and dominate your brain. Not only will this trigger you awake, but it’s likely to prevent you from falling back to sleep any time soon.
Urge to Scratch
As we fall asleep, our brain and body are in constant communication as shutdown mode ensues. One of the steps in this communication process is your brain signaling your body to move as a test to see if it’s awake. The reason this happens is that when you’re asleep, many of your motor functions are inactive to prevent you from acting out your dreams during REM sleep.
So, when this “test message” is sent, you may get the urge to scratch, move or roll over. It’s a signal to your brain that the body is not yet asleep.
This involuntary jerking is often related to prescription medications or a vitamin deficiency. It can also be a sign of restless leg syndrome. It’s not usually serious. Often, you’ll get these twitching sensations when you’re experiencing sleep deprivation.
These are also referred to as brain shivers or shocks, as well as electrical shocks. They’re often described as a jolt or a “buzz in the head.” They may be experienced in conjunction with flashes of bright light, vertigo, nausea, throat tension or tinnitus.
You may feel something similar to a panic attack, especially if there’s something on your mind that’s causing you to worry. You may not even be aware that it’s the source of anxiety. When we’re awake, our minds tend to focus on more immediate tasks and threats, but as we go to sleep, our subconscious could alert us to other thoughts to mull over.
What Causes these Feelings?
Heart palpitations, sweating, trembling and shortness of breath are all symptoms of an anxiety attack. 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 cause all sorts of weird feelings as you’re trying to sleep.
You may be suffering from a sleeping disorder that’s causing weird feelings to happen to you when trying to fall asleep. Sleep apnea could cause shortness of breath while restless legs syndrome could cause twitching and movement. Another condition, exploding head syndrome, could be responsible for your brain zaps. The good news is that addressing the source of the sleep disorder could make these feelings go away.
Whether you’re on an unconventional schedule or you’ve got insomnia, sleep deprivation could trigger all sorts of unexpected consequences, including all of the weird feelings described above. When we don’t get the shuteye that we need on a nightly basis, our brains begin to rewire themselves and produce hormones and chemicals at levels not designed for long-term equilibrium.
When you’re in an unfamiliar place, like a hotel or friend’s house, your body is on high alert and could experience levels of anxiety that could trigger weird feelings and electrical head shocks. If you tend to experience this phenomenon when you’re in a strange room, travel 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. In fact, Lyme Disease is one of the culprits, especially when it comes to brain zaps. Before you panic, note that this is rare. If you’re concerned, consult with your doctor.
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. Remember, tomorrow is a new day, and you can reset and start anew.
Meditation is an effective way to clear the mind and put your worries in context. There are free guided meditation videos to listen to on YouTube, or you may find that an ASMR video triggers more pleasant sensations and helps you fall asleep without incident.
If you meditate while lying down in bed, don’t be surprised if you fall asleep. Voila, problem solved!
If these weird feelings and head shocks are a nightly occurrence and they’re 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. You may need to work with a psychiatrist if you have a chemical disorder, or your primary care physician could be the best place to start for more general questions.
If you’ve stumbled across this article looking for the answer to explain your weird feelings and brain zaps, know that you are not alone. There are countless people also experiencing this, but not a lot of them are talking about it.
Partly, it’s because these sensations are difficult to describe, and another reason is that the root cause isn’t known with complete certainty. There are definite triggers, though, so hopefully, this post has given you some helpful tips to reduce these incidences.
Author: Sleep Advisor
Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.
Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.