What would you call my sleep disturbances?
June 26, 2019 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Since I was young, I've gone through periods where my sleep is interrupted by a strange kind of feeling. Generally speaking, it's a feeling of being half-awake, half-asleep, but unable to think clearly, as if I'm still dreaming. I have the sensation of being awake, in that I can feel my bed and, occasionally, see things in the dark, but I'm unable to rationally interpret them. I feel afraid, but it doesn't seem like a night terror either. Sometimes I'll move around the room, but usually I just stay in bed and work through it until I'm fully cognizant of what's happening. What is this?

Typically these periods are accompanied by anxiety in my day-to-day, so it isn't surprising that it would affect my sleep, though it isn't as if I'm going to sleep feeling particularly anxious. Here are some examples:

- I used to teach high school students. For the first few weeks, I would dream that I was sitting in front of a class of students, speaking, and they were just staring at me, non-responsive. Gradually, I would come to realize that I was sitting up in my bed, and the 'students' I was seeing would slowly reveal themselves as just stuff hanging around my room (a sweater, a towel, a backpack). Eventually I would realize that I was dreaming, but it could take awhile for me to understand that fact. The experience was always very anxiety-inducing. Eventually, my doctor prescribed some Lorazepam to take before bed, and that seemed to help quite a bit.

- After we had our daughter, I spent the whole first year having episodes where I believed she was wrapped up in the bedsheets, struggling to breathe. She didn't even sleep in our bed with us, so this was basically impossible. But nonetheless I would frantically search through the sheets, typically waking my wife up in the process. During the episode, it would feel so real, like it was an emergency, and objects in the bed would 'feel' like our infant daughter. Typically, my wife would snap me out of it, and I'd immediately feel angry, though it would pass pretty quickly into embarrassment. These passed, and I think got much better when we did something with the video monitor in the room, though I can't remember what for the life of me. Parent brain.

- For the last few weeks, I've been waking up freaking out about poison ivy, of all things. For context, we recently found a patch of it behind a fence in our yard, and a very small amount coming through the fence itself — we're having it all removed next week. But in the meantime, I've been waking up with this fear that something in the bed has been touched by poison ivy and that I'm going to get the dreaded rashes, or worse, that I've eaten poison ivy and that it's an emergency situation. Alternately, I am occasionally in fear that our toddler has been exposed to it. Last night, this manifested as me gripping my pillow and feverishly thinking about everything I may have touched and whether my pillow might have the resin on it, which would then transfer to my face—oddly enough it took me awhile to even realize it was my pillow in the first place. Eventually I recognize that the whole thing is totally ridiculous and I fall back asleep. Last night, though, I kept waking up, wracking my brain about all of the things that might have touched the poison ivy. Two nights ago, I jumped out of bed because, in my half-asleep state, I believed that our daughter was running directly for the patch and that I needed to stop her. Needless to say, it startled my wife.

Is there a name for all of this madness? It doesn't seem quite like sleepwalking, as I'm often mostly immobile. It doesn't seem like a night terror, as there isn't a yelling component or feeling of paralysis. It's very intense, so it seems like more than just talking in my sleep. What is it? I'd love to sleep peacefully, again, so even just hints of information would at least help me research it.

For what it's worth, in case it isn't obvious, I've had anxiety issues since being a teenager, in all sorts of fun ways. I'm not currently in therapy, but am certainly considering it again. This problem just keeps cropping up, and I'd love to find a way to handle it before my wife forces me onto the couch. Bonus points for anyone who knows what I can do about it!
posted by summerteeth to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what this is called, but I have it to. For me, I am usually struggling with some kind of non-existent work issue, and I'll wake up and still think I need to work on this work-thing. Slowly I'll realize it's a dream, but often I won't be sure if the underlying issue is real or not for quite some time. I'll go back to sleep and often right back into the same stress dream.

Like you it corresponds to stress, and for me also some lapses in sleep hygiene. I have had sleep issues my whole adult life and there are things that seem to be common triggers, that I try to avoid. I'll be good about that and have 6mo of good sleep and then slack off and it gets worse again. For me, my rules are more or less:
* no work and no side-project or hobby stuff after about 8-8:30pm (I go to bed around 10:30)
* no internet arguing or anything like that that's likely to get me riled up - no politics etc
* I try to get exercise, and specifically I like that to be the last thing I do before bed
* I read in bed for a half hour before going to sleep
* I try to keep noise and distractions away during the pre-sleep reading phase. My family is not always cooperative.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:27 AM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a form of sleep paralysis. Since yours seems coupled with hallucinations, you may find this book helpful. I used to have similar sleep issues, but they've greatly declined as I've gotten older.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 10:39 AM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

The state between sleep and wakefulness is called the hypnopompic state and I have also read the term "sleep inertia" - basically your brain is taking longer than normal to fully boot up. It sounds like you can relate yours directly to stress which definitely causes sleep disturbances, but it can also be a symptom of narcolepsy or some other disorders.
posted by muddgirl at 10:43 AM on June 26, 2019

I don't know what this is called, but I have it to. For me, I am usually struggling with some kind of non-existent work issue, and I'll wake up and still think I need to work on this work-thing. Slowly I'll realize it's a dream, but often I won't be sure if the underlying issue is real or not for quite some time. I'll go back to sleep and often right back into the same stress dream.

I don't recognize the OPs description (Except the poison ivy...that seems like a wake-up thought pattern I would have), but I definitely recognize this quote. The part where I realize that it's a dream, but even so don't realize it's not real is particularly annoying, because I go back to sleep SPECIFICALLY SO THAT I can do whatever I was doing in the dream. Like I think "Oh no, it was a dream. I need to go back and finish..." and I go back to sleep and continue the dream.

I do another twist on this that's kind of the converse. I dream that I wake up and keep dreaming that I wake up and was dreaming that I woke up ad infitim, and have to do the wake-up task, which is often escape.

So if that made no sense, here it is: I'm lying in bed and I need to get out of my condo. Usually because I feel very unwell/groggy and I think I'm going to pass out and I don't want to pass out alone at home, but rather in the hallway where someone will find me. But because I am so unwell/dizzy/foggy-minded etc., I have great difficulty getting to the door.

Then I "wake up" and realize that I was dreaming that I was going to the door and never actually went, but I am feeling faint and unwell and about to pass out, so I need to get to the door, so I start over and have great difficulty getting to the door because I am so unwell. Then I "wake up" and realize I haven't even started going to the door yet, but I need to get to the door, etc. etc.

The thing is, I think the wake-ups are *real* wake ups but I just don't make the connection between dream=not real and I fall back asleep to [dream] go back to the door.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:07 AM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Possibly hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations with some sleep paralysis in the mix. Not possible to really say without an actual medical consultation. It can be a symptom of other sleep disorders so it would be worth seeing a sleep medicine clinician.
posted by teamnap at 1:46 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have this too, and teamnap above has given the correct medical assessment. Not all night terrors are terrifying, which is why when I explain to others about my experience I usually also throw in the medical term parasomnia. I have written here before that just having a doctor diagnose me was very comforting because it gave a name to something I thought had been wrong with me for my whole life. I always recommend seeing a sleep specialist if you can to put your own mind at ease. Sleep doctors can come from two different backgrounds, broadly-- from respiratory/chest internists, or from psychiatrists who enter the specialty that way. I found that the ones who come into the profession from the psych side are more interested and willing to talk about the neurological/brain aspects of the experience than the ones who come at if from the lung/respiratory career path. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may not have a choice of which sleep doctor you see.
posted by seasparrow at 8:17 PM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've had this type of thing too, at various times over many years. Sometimes I've also had sleepwalking episodes, but your example that really felt familiar to me was when you were convinced your daughter was in the bed with you - I've had many experiences of similar feelings of an urgently compelling need to find something or remove something or to fix something that's wrong. On the whole, I'll wake up sufficiently part-way through trying to do that thing, and convince myself that it's not real - then I can go back to sleep.

I had a particular spike of these night-time terrors (? doesn't feel like exactly the right word to me either) last year when my anxiety got very bad for a while. But, talking to my doctor about it didn't go well - having described a few of these episodes I was referred onto an intervention for psychosis, which I declined on the grounds that it didn't feel like a helpful diagnosis.

FWIW, since I took a course of sertraline for my anxiety, I haven't had any recurrence. I've tapered all the way off the sertraline now, and my sleep is still pretty good so far.
posted by rd45 at 3:41 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

but often I won't be sure if the underlying issue is real or not for quite some time

Btw, I have trouble with this, too, on waking. I can't figure out if some part of the dream is real or not. Which parts are dream and which are memory. I find that I can deal with this pretty effectively by "looking for the illogical." What part of the dream isn't actually possible. Usually it's very banal: The dream took place at this restaurant, but no, that can't have happened because I ordered pizza for dinner last night so obviously I didn't go to the resaurant. Then I know it's not real.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:54 AM on June 27, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks for the insights and personal stories, all. It's comforting to know that I'm not alone in experiencing these sorts of things. I guess I should have known that it might be a combination of things rather than a simple one-liner diagnosis.

I'll keep all of this in mind and see about finding a sleep specialist who is familiar with anxiety-related sleep issues.
posted by summerteeth at 6:07 AM on June 28, 2019

Some of this sounds exactly like the sleep paralysis episodes I have sometimes. It’s never occurred to me to go to a doctor for this?? For me it’s just a thing that happens sometimes and when I realize it’s sleep paralysis I’m just like, “hmm ok, this again”. Having a name to put to it, and knowing that it’s just a temporary thing that will be over soon, eliminates the feelings of terror that I get initially.

You might try different sleeping positions and see if that helps. I generally have sleep paralysis only when I fall asleep on my back.
posted by a strong female character at 8:26 AM on June 28, 2019

If it’s available to you, you should definitely see a sleep specialist. It actually sounds to me like you might have a sleep REM disorder in which people act out their dreams.

posted by dog-eared paperback at 12:39 PM on July 4, 2019

« Older Help me think of movie trilogies that then...   |   Who's my freeloader? Plant ID Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.