Why do I *always, without fail* have nightmares if I fall asleep on my back?
March 12, 2007 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Why do I *always, without fail* have nightmares if I fall asleep on my back?

This has been happening for so long that by now I should really know better than to let myself fall asleep on my back, but sometimes it happens anyway. Sometimes they are the "sleep paralysis" kind that I have been able to find info on, but usually they are just very scary nightmares. This happens to my dad as well, and a Google search shows that it happens to at least a few other people. I do tend to get more nightmares when I'm stressed, but even when I'm not, if I fall asleep on my back, I WILL have a nightmare, guaranteed.

posted by infinityjinx to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
sleep apnea?
posted by Gungho at 8:23 AM on March 12, 2007

Used to happen to me, too, on a regular basis. Usually the paralysis type of nightmare. I can't recall it happening since I've lost some weight and gotten down to a normal BMI, which leads me to believe that it's tied to sleep apnea.

I think it's a way for your mind to interrupt your sleep, telling you that you're not getting enough air, and need to wake up so you can change your position to one in which you are able to breathe.
posted by syzygy at 8:28 AM on March 12, 2007

Sleep apnea is worth looking into. Same thing happens to me, and I was having apnea symptoms before my tonsillectomy. If you're gasping for breath in the night it's understandable how that might lead to nightmares, and you may not even be aware it's happening. I didn't know that I stopped breathing at night until I got married.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:28 AM on March 12, 2007

Response by poster: I should add that I very rarely snore (usually I only snore if I fall asleep unintentionally while reading or something), and have no insomnia or any other sleep-related problems to speak of.
posted by infinityjinx at 8:33 AM on March 12, 2007

I can't offer any kind of legitimate explanation, but this happens to my SO, also. He doesn't have sleep apnea, but if he winds up on his back, he has nightmares without fail.
posted by desuetude at 8:35 AM on March 12, 2007

Response by poster: Let me ALSO add that I am a healthy/normal weight 22 year old female, and this has been happening for at least 10 years.
posted by infinityjinx at 8:48 AM on March 12, 2007

How do you avoid sleeping on your back, even if you don't fall asleep that way?
posted by DU at 8:51 AM on March 12, 2007

Response by poster: I usually sleep on my side, it's most comfortable for me that way, but sometimes I either roll over onto my back in the middle of the night, or lay down on my back and fall asleep that way by accident because I was too tired/lazy to turn over - and then I will have a nightmare. I get nightmares occasionally too when sleeping on my side, but I *always* get them, and they are the most frightening actually, when asleep on my back. . .
posted by infinityjinx at 8:58 AM on March 12, 2007

How do you avoid sleeping on your back, even if you don't fall asleep that way?

Many people sleep face down.
posted by delmoi at 8:58 AM on March 12, 2007

Many people fall asleep face down. I've never heard of anyone who didn't move while sleeping.

I don't understand how you know which of the times you happened to roll onto your back you also had nightmares. If you roll onto your back for an hour and then roll to your side again but had no nightmares, how would you know?

I guess I'm voting for apnea or bad data collection.
posted by DU at 9:02 AM on March 12, 2007

How dark is your room, usually? Is it possible that you're waking up a tiny bit (some small noise outdoors), and then, because you're on your back, you glimpse shadows on the ceiling or lights from a window, and these stimuli are the raw material for your next dream?
posted by xo at 9:04 AM on March 12, 2007

If I wake up from a nightmare, I'm always sleeping on my left shoulder rather than my right shoulder, so I always try to fall asleep facing right. It's nice to hear someone else gets this sort of thing too!

I always theorized it was caused by more blood pooling in the left hemisphere of my brain thereby generating new, interesting forms of imaginary terror, but I'm completely speculating.

Interestingly this article suggests that the front of the brain is responsible for inhibiting the amygdala, which remembers and generates fear. So if you're lying on your back maybe there's less blood in the pre-frontal cortex allowing the (possibly quite random) fear activity to overwhelm the "it's OK" activity, and thereby influencing your dreams?
posted by so_necessary at 9:14 AM on March 12, 2007

Response by poster: To DU: If I start out on my back and fall asleep that way, I will have a nightmare. Even if I don't start out on my back, sometimes I will wake up from a nightmare and find that I am on my back - so I assume I rolled over that way. I don't know how else to explain it...

To xo: This has been happening for at least 10 years/since I was a kid, and I have lived in different rooms and fallen asleep under different conditions. There is only one constant - fall asleep on back = nightmare that wakes me up.

I've been researching sleep apnea and although IANAD but should probably go to one, I don't really have any of the symptoms...
posted by infinityjinx at 9:26 AM on March 12, 2007

I used to have the waking paralysis episodes quite often. This stopped cold when I started using the CPAP to alleviate my Sleep Apnea.

My sleep doctor said the episodes were likely triggered by my sleep being interrupted or disrupted by the apnea - I would come half awake from the Apnea, and then the paralysis would set in as I went back to sleep.

Whether it's Apnea or no, something is disrupting your sleep. You say you don't snore so I assume you are not sleeping alone (otherwise, you'd have no idea about the snoring). Either way, see a sleep specialist about your nightmares, they could be a sign of other sleep problems. Don't hesitate - if you're not getting proper sleep, it's affecting your quality of life in ways you may not even realize!

Also, I have read that wearing a t-shirt with a tennis ball sewn into the back is a good way to prevent rolling over in your sleep.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 9:28 AM on March 12, 2007

...sometimes I will wake up from a nightmare and find that I am on my back...

Even assuming this happened every time you woke up from a nightmare, it would only prove that every time you have a nightmare you have slept on your back. Your claim is the converse, that every time you sleep on your back you have a nightmare.

The reason I'm making a big deal of it (other than I'm a pedant) is that (assuming it's not apnea) this sounds like one of those things where someone gets an idea about a connection so firmly entrenched in their minds they can't see the truth. For instance, you say you are usually careful but that once in a while you fall asleep on your back. Do you do this accidentally because you are drunk/extra tired/distracted/stressed?
posted by DU at 9:46 AM on March 12, 2007

I don't have apnea, but I if I fall asleep on my back without support under one of my arms (doesn't matter which, it turns out) from a pillow, I often will snore as well as also have sleep paralysis. I was lucky to find such a simple solution.

Re nightmares, well, definitely sleep paralysis often gets woven into dreams. Very recurrent for me before the pillow thing. :)
posted by smallerdemon at 9:48 AM on March 12, 2007

How do you avoid sleeping on your back, even if you don't fall asleep that way?

Your girlfriend, who is a light sleeper, nudges you when you roll onto your back. Or at least, that's how my boyfriend does it.
posted by desuetude at 11:04 AM on March 12, 2007

Response by poster: DU: Can't see the truth of what? I know my body and I know my experiences. To answer your question, usually if I do fall asleep on my back it's because I got comfy that way and then fell asleep before reminding myself to turn onto my side (which I've started to do more consciously in the past few years), so I guess it could have been because I was extra tired. Is there a correlation between being extra-tired and having nightmares? Or are you saying that I'm "expecting" to have them and so I do? I would refute that only because I was not nearly as meta cognizant as a kid and it would still happen.

Even more fun facts for you, I can dream lucidly (I've practiced...) and sometimes I can turn a nightmare around when I realize I'm in it - not the majority of the time though.
posted by infinityjinx at 11:52 AM on March 12, 2007

The truth of whatever the truth is.

I remember when I was a kid I got a pretty good whack on the knees from a porch swing. For years after whenever I had itchy or painful knees, I'd think of that and bemoan the fact that now I had "bad knees" because of that childhood accident. Then I mentioned it to a doctor. His reply: Your knees are fine.

It was all in my head. My knees really are fine. But I was fixated on the "explanation" I'd come up with and was reinforcing it ever time some totally normal thing would bring my attention to my knees.

I'm not saying you aren't having nightmares. I'm saying that the explanation you working under for those nightmares is a big assumption for which you've gathered no relevant data. If it's a big issue, see a sleep doctor. If it's just burning curiosity, have a friend watch you sleep and see if you ever flip on your back during a non-nightmare night.
posted by DU at 12:16 PM on March 12, 2007

I don't know if this is relevant at all, but whenever I lay on my back, even when not asleep, I feel vaguely uncomfortable. I guess this might be because, when lying on your back, all your vital organs and such are exposed, and subconsciously your mind realizes this and triggers uneasiness to try to get you to do something about it, i.e., curl up into a ball while laying on your side, which might offer more protection from marauding baddies. Perhaps, in sleep, this position then triggers nightmares.*

*I have no expertise in this field, so this is just a guess that kind of makes sense to me. It might be (probably is) completely wrong.
posted by notswedish at 12:22 PM on March 12, 2007

I have a pet-theory on this: when you fall asleep on your back, you're more vulnerable to "attack". in other words, if you fall asleep on your back, you're more "protected" to anyone/anything that may try to get you. I can't fall asleep on my back unless I'm very drunk, or extremely tired.
posted by mrmarley at 12:41 PM on March 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by rainbaby at 12:43 PM on March 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To notswedish and mrmarley: That is my dad's exact theory as well!
posted by infinityjinx at 2:01 PM on March 12, 2007

I've never fallen asleep on my back (at least, not since I can remember). Lying down that way makes me feel the exact opposite of relaxed and comfy. So maybe you're just relaxed/tired enough to fall asleep, but some related anxiety issue to mine is giving you the wig once you're slumbering.

I have spent hours lying on my back trying to fall asleep before. I just can't do it.
posted by crinklebat at 4:21 PM on March 12, 2007

I find that I have nightmares/vivid dreams if I sleep with my arm stretched over my head. It's very odd. My theory is that I just don't sleep as soundly -- I get to the dream stage but no deeper, and so I am more likely to remember the dreams when I sleep in that position.
posted by litlnemo at 4:30 PM on March 12, 2007

Because you think that for the past 10 years, you've had nightmares when you've slept on your back. Everyone has several dreams each night, we just don't remember them. (They last on average 3 seconds). You wake up, you're on your back and feel vulnerable. In the process of waking, you create a nightmare.
posted by jesirose at 9:38 PM on March 12, 2007

Well, I too get nightmares if I go to sleep on my back. Pretty much every time. No idea why, though.
posted by londongeezer at 11:16 AM on March 13, 2007

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