Sleep should be one of the most relaxing times of the day. We go to bed, we feel more and more at ease and relaxed and we lose the connection with what surrounds us to abandon ourselves in the arms of Morpheus. But sometimes, just before falling asleep completely, we feel like we are falling and we experience a kind of spasmodic movement.
It is a small jolt, like when we walk and put our foot wrong because we have miscalculated the distance. While this is normal, many people get scared or even have a panic attack. In fact, in extreme cases, when the hypnic spasm is very violent or fast, the person wakes up completely and can no longer fall asleep.
The Hypnic Spasm --A Legacy of Our Ancestors?
The sensation of falling while we sleep is part of what is known as "hypnic twitch" (or hypnic twitch) and in some cases it can also be accompanied by a visual hallucination, which makes it even more disconcerting. It is estimated that 70% of people often experience this sensation when they are about to fall asleep, although many do not remember it.
Spasm usually occurs when the muscles, almost always in the legs, contract very quickly and involuntarily, something similar to what happens when we are jerked or suffer a muscle spasm.
One of the theories that attempt to explain this phenomenon refers to evolution. According to this perspective, the movements and sensations that cause the rude awakening would help us monitor our environment for the last time, to make sure we are definitely safe. Thus they help us to avoid falling asleep in a dangerous place, simply because we have been assaulted by fatigue.
Furthermore, according to evolutionists, the hypnic spasm served our ancestors to confirm that they had also chosen a stable position in which to fall asleep. In practice, it was an ancestral mechanism to ensure that you had chosen a sufficiently strong and stable foothold before falling asleep completely.
But recently, thanks to the advances made in the field of neuroscience, another theory has appeared that attempts to find the explanation for hypnic spasm in the brain.
The brain never disconnects permanently
Neuroscientists, for their part, believe that these movements simply signal that our physiological system is surrendering to sleep. In fact, when we sleep, as a precaution, paralysis occurs in the body, called "sleep paralysis". During REM sleep, which is the deepest, when we dream the brain is "disconnected" from the main muscle groups, so we cannot imitate the movements we make in the dream and avoid damaging ourselves.
In this regard, the sensation of falling and those spasmodic movements would be the signal that we are moving from active muscle control to a state of total relaxation.
But there are some factors that can increase the chances of experiencing hypnic spasm or feeling it more intensely.
- Do not sleep regularly or go to bed too tired.
- Consume excessive amounts of stimulants such as coffee and tea, especially in the evening, and always do intense physical activity in the evening.
- Interference from external stimuli such as lights and sounds when we are about to enter the deepest phase of sleep.
In all these cases, sleep is interrupted, an irregular pattern develops which implies that the organism enters REM before being prepared, and this can cause hypnic contraction or the sensation of falling into emptiness. In fact, it has been seen that hypnic spasm is more common when the person falls asleep quickly. In practice, our body falls asleep so quickly that the brain is unable to follow its rhythm and go through the different stages of sleep, so that a sort of "short circuit" occurs.
Finally, it should be clarified that while hypnic spasm is a natural phenomenon of sleep, which usually decreases with age, it can still become annoying both for the person who suffers from it and for those who sleep next to it. In these cases it is advisable to consult a sleep specialist as it could be another disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.
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