The sensation of falling when falling asleep is a common occurrence that many people experience. It is often described as a jolt or a sudden awakening that can be quite startling. While this phenomenon is considered normal, it can cause fear or panic in some individuals. In extreme cases, the jolt can be so strong that it completely wakes up the person, making it difficult for them to fall back asleep.
The Awakening Jolt: An Ancestral Legacy?
The sensation of falling during sleep is often referred to as “the startle.” In some cases, it can even be accompanied by visual hallucinations, further adding to the bewilderment. It is estimated that around 70% of people experience this sensation regularly before falling asleep, although many do not remember it.
This jolt typically occurs when the muscles, particularly in the legs, contract involuntarily and rapidly. It is similar to the experience of a muscle spasm or a sudden pull.
A Process Related to the Need for Security
One theory that attempts to explain this phenomenon takes an evolutionary viewpoint. According to this perspective, the movements and sensations that cause the sudden awakening serve the purpose of allowing us to observe our surroundings one last time, ensuring that we are in a safe place. This mechanism helps prevent us from falling into a deep sleep in a potentially dangerous environment due to fatigue.
Evolutionists also propose that this startle response served our ancestors by allowing them to assess the stability of their sleeping positions. It was a mechanism that ensured they had a secure and stable position before falling into a deep sleep, thus preventing injuries.
The Brain’s Role in the Awakening Jolt
With advancements in neuroscience, another theory has emerged, focusing on the brain's involvement in the startle response. Neuroscientists believe that these movements indicate that our physiological system is transitioning into a state of sleep. When we sleep, our body enters a paralysis state called “sleep paralysis” as a precautionary measure. During the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase, which is the deepest phase associated with dreaming, the brain disconnects from major muscle groups to prevent us from acting out our dreams and potentially harming ourselves.
The sensation of falling and the spasmodic movements can be seen as signs that our body is shifting from active muscle control to a state of complete relaxation.
Factors Influencing the Sensation of Falling and the Abrupt Awakening
Several factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing these tremors or intensify the sensation:
- Having an irregular sleep schedule or going to bed excessively tired
- Consuming stimulating substances, particularly coffee, late in the day
- Engaging in intense physical activity close to bedtime
- Interference from external stimuli, such as lights or sound, when entering the deep sleep phase
In these cases, sleep interruptions and irregular sleep patterns can cause the body to enter the REM phase prematurely, leading to the sensation of trembling or falling. It has been observed that strong tremors are more common when a person falls asleep quickly. Essentially, the body falls asleep rapidly, but the brain is unable to keep up with this rapid transition, causing a “short-circuit” in the sleep process.
While these tremors are a natural aspect of sleep and tend to decrease with age, they can be bothersome for the individual experiencing them and their sleeping partners. In such cases, consulting a sleep specialist is recommended to rule out other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
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