Stress Makes Me Hallucinate When I’m Falling Asleep

When two authority figures materialize in your bedroom in the middle of the night, you don't question them.

by Sydney Mondry
Oct 16 2017, 12:00pm

sezer66 / Getty Images

Nine years of Spanish classes prepared me for simple essay writing and some hesitant spoken dialogue. It did not prepare me to translate the entire score of Grease, which I found myself attempting one spring night in the eighth grade.

Let me back up a bit and tell you that I've never handled stress well. I'm both a perfectionist and a procrastinator, which in junior high, led to many late nights hovering (and often crying) over history textbooks, flashcards, and scripts. So the fact that I was starring as Sandy in our production of Grease during the same week I had to take an important Spanish exam did not bode well for me.

The night before our opening performance, I "woke up" in the middle of the night to find my Spanish teacher, Maria, and director, Heather, standing at the foot of my bed. They told me that it was time to rehearse my songs—in Spanish. When two authority figures materialize in your bedroom in the middle of the night, you don't question them. And so, struggling to keep my eyes open, I began to translate "Summer Lovin.'" It was a disaster, obviously. Amor en el verano wasn't really working for them.

Although I was sitting straight up in bed with open eyes during this "rehearsal," I wasn't actually awake. I was experiencing some sort of half-asleep hallucination, something that's been plaguing me since I was 12 years old. The first episode occurred in 2004 after a friend's bat mitzvah, the social event of the season. At the night's end, I was overwhelmed and enraptured by the pre-pubescent grinding, choreographed dances to "Cotton Eye Joe," and the feeling of sweaty palms on my waist as I slow danced (at arms-length distance) to K-Ci & JoJo's "All My Life." It was a lot to digest.

Later that night, again somewhat asleep, I was greeted by a handful of boys and girls who'd also attended the party. They stood around my room and stared at me. A few sat on my bed. I didn't question why they were there, and I wasn't afraid. Mostly, I was embarrassed to have been caught so unkempt. I adjusted the pajamas that had twisted around my torso and ran a hand through my tangled hair. I tried to socialize, but soon became utterly exhausted. I pleaded with them to leave for what seemed like hours, trying to be polite yet desperate to sleep in peace.

The next morning, I told my mom about what happened. I thought she'd take me straight to a shrink. Instead, with a sympathetic look, she told me that she'd had the same dreams when she was my age. They'd always occurred after she'd been in a social setting that drained her emotional energy. "You'll grow out of it," she assured me.

The dreams became less frequent after a couple of years—once bar and bat mitzvah season ended—but they didn't stop completely. Just last year, I started a new job as a social media editor and for two months was plagued with these hallucination-like dreams in which I sent out gibberish tweets and posted personal photos on the company's Facebook page. Most recently, I dreamed that I accidentally went live on Instagram with my phone facing the wall, causing us to lose 3,000 followers. I showed up to work the next day totally zonked and afraid to even open the Instagram app. It was time to consult a professional.

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"It sounds like a hypnagogic hallucination," says Lisa Cohen, clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai's Carl Icahn School of Medicine. "It's sort of in between a dream and a hallucination, when you're going into sleep and coming out of sleep." Okay, great. Now why the hell is it happening to me? I need my precious z's in order to produce #premium #internet #content.

"Dreams are very driven by emotions, particularly negative emotions. They seem to serve as a way for the brain to make sense of stressful experiences. So if you have a repeat stress dream, then something isn't processed—it's not metabolized," Cohen explains.

Cohen breaks down how the brain works during sleep: "The processing mode is very right-brained. It's very imagistic, holistic, associative, metaphorical, symbolic—it's not linear and it's not logical. You're creating images that have meaning for you on an emotional level and a personal level," she says. "You're trying to make sense of and master the way you engage with the world and your perception of self."

Basically, Cohen says that my brain is attempting to process meaningful interactions in my sleep, which likely means I'm anxious about how I'm perceived by others. While I don't consider myself uncomfortable in social settings, I do feel the need to be "on"—like a slightly more robust version of myself—when spending time with people I don't know that well, so Cohen's analysis adds up. But tons of people I know have social anxiety. Why does everyone look at me like I have three heads whenever I broach the subject of mid-sleep hallucinations?

"It could be that your brain's a little different," Cohen says. "Dreaming is a biological process. Pregnant women can have very emotionally intense dreams, people on certain medications can have very emotionally intense dreams, so it could be something going on with you genetically."

Thanks, Mom. I call her to discuss the diagnosis. She suggests that it could also involve an infatuation with the subtleties of human behavior. Regardless, she grew out of the hallucinations. There's no question that the work-related dreams, however, are 100 percent stress-induced, Cohen says.

Last week, my worst nightmare came to life. After having a highly sensitive conversation with another social editor, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and realized that I had been live on the company Instagram for 15 fucking minutes for an audience of 3,000. If that weren't bad enough, I had managed to land in the app's Top Live category. I felt my soul leave my body, suddenly unsure if this was just another hyper-realistic anxiety dream or, god forbid, real life. I didn't even read the comments before immediately ending the stream. I carried my phone back to my desk like a toxic waste sample. I've since deleted the app, burned my phone, quit my job, and relocated to Guam. (Kidding, but I wanted to.)

I'm still not totally sure how it happened—I wasn't even in the Instagram app before locking my phone. Was it just bad luck? Or is it possible that my stress dreams have burrowed so deeply into my psyche that I unconsciously manifested my worst fear?

"That's a possibility," Cohen says. "Certainly I believe in unconscious motivation and unconscious behavior, and it could be that you were really afraid of it and made it happen, or it could be that you realized it was a risk and it was on your mind. That's the unconscious at work."

Extremely reassuring. So now the question is: How do I make sure this never, ever happens again? According to Cohen, I can practice some form of mindfulness to help clear my head, like meditation or something called "conscious dream work." "Sometimes people will try to train themselves to consciously alter the dream. So before they go to sleep they think through the dream and imagine different alternatives," she says. "Like telling the people in the room, 'Thank you, this is my room, now it's time for you to leave. I'm entitled to privacy and you really don't belong here.'"

Since that doesn't sound like something I'd willingly do when I'm "on," I might just stick to meditation for now.

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