What is this sleep disturbance thing?
June 13, 2019 5:23 AM   Subscribe

When asleep, I occasionally slam abruptly awake, heart pounding and body generally reacting as if in terror. To the best I can recall, I have not been having a nightmare prior to the wakeup before these times. Google not helping, is this a thing that happens to other people with a name?

1. To the extent I remember any dream in waking it is a pleasant or neutral one, not a nightmare (and I'm not sure this is always happening in REM sleep)
2. A central feeling is the extreme abruptness. The fear always feels very sudden and out of nowhere, when I wake up I don't feel like I've woken from a nightmare but like my body just suddenly dumped a ton of adrenaline into my system. It isn't a night terror (where you're not totally awake, might forget it happened, etc), rather it really is like being very harshly slammed awake.
3. I often then need to use the bathroom, although I'm not clear on causation or correlation here... There is no other possible external trigger I can think of. This can happen during naps during the day, or in the middle of the night, and there's never any candidate I notice for a cause. (it miiight happen more if I'm extra extremely exhausted? I know that was the case at least twice, and can't remember for the other time)

It takes the adrenaline shakes/squeezey heart feeling a while to subside, although the emotion of acute terror itself fades rapidly (think seconds), since there's nothing I see causing it...

It can be hard for me to fall back asleep after waking in this way because of all the adrenaline, which at 3am is not fun, but is currently happening rarely enough it's not markedly interfering with my life. I have no idea if it's a fixable issue, or indicative of anything, or a weird quirk of my body alone, because trying to search by describing it and also reading lists of sleep disorders have both not yielded results. I guess I can mention it to my GP at next appointment, but in the meantime I figured I'd check the hivemind.
posted by Cozybee to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
*other times

That was a typo, this has happened to me more than three times but I have not otherwise been keeping count (may start now, I guess)
posted by Cozybee at 5:24 AM on June 13, 2019

I get something like this occasionally and used to a lot more in the past. I'm not sure which exactly was the main cause but it was much worse when my anxiety was not under control and my blood sugar levels were too high.
posted by brilliantine at 5:26 AM on June 13, 2019

I don't know the name of this, but it definitely happens to me as well. I usually just get up and listen to a short podcast or watch a 30 minute tv show or something, because there's no falling asleep without a calm-down period. I don't know why it happens, but I agree that it tends to happen when I'm overly tired and needing sleep or anxious about something in my life. Which makes it really irritating! I don't know if there's a fix or not.
posted by backwards compatible at 5:34 AM on June 13, 2019

Panic attack? Literally is your body dumping a ton of adrenaline into your system. Can absolutely happen during sleep. Definitely talk to your doctor.

Lots of things could cause these symptoms, so a doctor visit is the best plan. Blood sugar highs or lows, sleep apnea, anxiety disorder, etc.

(When I had panic attacks that awakened me from dreamless sleep, it was more a sense of impending doom/formless dread, not abrupt terror — but there could be various experiences. PS, I know “sense of impending doom” can be a heart attack symptom, and I went to the doctor — my heart is fine. It was anxiety for me; the right meds and a better life situation, and it hasn’t happened in years.)
posted by snowmentality at 5:35 AM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have severe sleep apnea, and before I got a CPAP machine I would sometimes wake up like this. It was because my body was reacting to the cut-off of oxygen - I was not breathing for long periods of times and then gasping for breath. Then I would have to pee, which can also be a symptom of sleep apnea.
posted by lyssabee at 5:50 AM on June 13, 2019 [13 favorites]

I started experiencing this recently and did a ton of googling. There are a lot of people talking about it all over the interwebs so it is most definitely a thing, but not a whole lot of actual medical information. For me, it usually happens as I am falling asleep. Like, I am pleasantly drifting off to dreamland but there is some little noise in the room and blammo, adrenaline surge, heart pounding, dry mouth, full fight-or-flight response (which causes me to have to pee). I finally calm down again, start drifting off and then some other innocuous nighttime noise and it happens all over again.

Do you have a uterus? Are you perhaps entering perimenopause? That can cause all manner of sleep disturbances as well as anxiety and panic attacks.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:53 AM on June 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

This sounds like exploding head syndrome, but without the characteristic loud bang that wakes one up.
posted by sockermom at 6:15 AM on June 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Are you possibly experiencing hypnic jerks? It’s what I thought of when I read your question, in that it’s a sudden waking but not caused by a nightmare. If so it’s fairly common and not harmful, but it’s always worth speaking to your GP about any unexplained changes in sleep patterns, if that’s possible.
posted by billiebee at 6:15 AM on June 13, 2019 [10 favorites]

I get this from time to time. The most common occurrence is when I’ve been sleeping on my stomach and got tangled face-down in the pillows - it feels like my body has kicked me out of sleep to stop me suffocating. I don’t know if that’s actually what happens but it feels very different to when I’ve experienced a panic attack or night terrors, with this I get that massive adrenaline punch in one go and then it dissipates, much as you describe.

I have a ritual when it happens - light on, breathe deeply, sit up, apply vicks vapor rub (originally to clear airways, but mostly it’s just reassuring), and I’m fine in about ten minutes.
posted by freya_lamb at 6:36 AM on June 13, 2019

For me, those exact symptoms were an early sign of an anxiety disorder - it eventually developed into constant low-level anxiety and occasional waking panic attacks. My GP prescribed a low dosage of an anti-anxiety medication, which I used for a couple of years. It helped a lot, and I've been pretty much fine in the 10 years since.
posted by pipeski at 6:41 AM on June 13, 2019

Any chance it's central sleep apnea? It's different from the usual apnea, which is caused by physical airway obstruction- central apnea is due to a brain-body miscommunication.

I've had it happen where I'd just... *forget to breathe* (WHY) and slam awake in a panic a couple times a week. In my specific case I was also pregnant and had recently had to stop sleeping on my stomach due to the size of my bump, plus I was having some anxiety caused both by situations and by hormones. But central apnea and anxiety can certainly exist separately or together, independently of pregnancy.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:02 AM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

How about night terrors? They usually occur in kids but adults can get them too.
posted by FungusCassetteBicker at 7:06 AM on June 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

Get yourself to sleep doctor and have them do a sleep study. It's a bit of a pain but if you have sleep apnea CPAP could save your life.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 7:58 AM on June 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've experienced hypnic jerks, exploding head syndrome, and sleep apnea (I've been on CPAP for years now), and there was this thing that was happening to me for a few months a couple of years ago, where I'd awake from a dream (that had been fine until it took some last-second threatening turn) with my heart pounding. It'd quickly calm down, and the sense of panic or whatever would subside, and then I could fall back asleep.

I never did figure out for certain what caused it, but (take this with a grain of salt/correlation doesn't equal causation/it could just be a coincidence/that sort of thing) I later had a nearly fatal run-in with a deep vein thrombosis and saddle pulmonary embolism. (I have zero idea how long it had been building up, but I know it was at least two weeks, so it definitely wasn't something that happened super fast.) After a few months of being on an anticoagulant and having my clots checked out to verify that they were in fact shrinking, at some point I realized I'd stopped having that sleep disturbance. I'm still on anticoagulants (and will be for life), but that was over two years ago, and it hasn't happened since. Your mileage may vary.
posted by kimota at 9:54 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I get these and have always assumed they were some kind of hypnic jerks. Sometimes I feel like I have tripped over and others are more of a falling feeling. A few days ago I hit myself in the face defending myself against an attacking mountain goat just as I was dropping off to sleep...

My fun explanation for them is that it is an evolutionary hangover where our brains think we are monkeys living in trees and we need to check our position is safe before we drop off to sleep. Not exactly scientific but just for fun.
posted by RandomInconsistencies at 11:29 AM on June 13, 2019

I used to get something like this, pretty sure it was a hypnic jerk type thing. With me, it felt like falling, and I’d fling my limbs out as if to grab onto something. I eventually noticed that it only happened when I slept at home, so I bought a new mattress and pillows and it hasn’t happened since.
posted by rodlymight at 12:05 PM on June 13, 2019

This started happening to me when I entered perimenopause a couple of years ago in my early 40s. It was very alarming, because I had never experienced anything like it before. It was just as you described it—like someone had dumped a ton of adrenaline into my body. CBD helped with this.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:31 PM on June 13, 2019

This happens to me and they are panic attacks. I get them more often when I am undergoing a lot of stress or busyness in my waking life, or when my generalized anxiety is not well controlled. I lie there and let it happen, and it usually passes quickly.
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:00 PM on June 13, 2019

Strong +1 for the sleep study, especially to determine if it's respiratory.
posted by churl at 5:42 PM on June 13, 2019

+2 for the sleep study.

n-thing panic attacks.
posted by kathrynm at 7:49 AM on June 14, 2019

I have not had this myself, but I have worked with many people who described this as part of a larger issue with panic attacks. See a doctor.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:00 AM on June 14, 2019

Sounds like a hypnic jerk or perhaps something like Exploding Head Syndrome. A sleep study could confirm.
posted by skye.dancer at 4:09 PM on June 14, 2019

I have something like this, and for me it's to do with dysautonomia - my body literally does occasionally randomly dump a ton of adrenaline into my system for no reason. I do experience the panicky feeling, but for me that's just a side effect of the physical sensation. Just one data point - it could be something purely physical if you're not experiencing any kind of anxiety symptoms apart from this. Sometimes the body does do weird things when it's sleeping.
posted by BlueNorther at 6:03 AM on June 16, 2019

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