Things that go bump in the night

As October is the month of Halloween, we thought that this month we would focus on “things that go bump in the night”.

Getting a good night’s sleep is normally a wonderful restorative experience which improves both your physical and mental health… but sometimes you can wake up in the night upset because you had a bad dream, or another scary sleep experience.  Let’s have a look at some of these scary things that happen while you sleep.


Most people will have experienced having a nightmare at some point in their lives. While we sleep we go through light, deep and dreaming sleep in repeating cycles across the night. During dreaming sleep (also called REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep) our brains are very active (almost as active as when we are awake). Our brains are “dreaming” or making up stories about things that have happened to us or imagining impossible things that could never happen. Scientists think that these dreams are our brain’s attempt to make sense of the day, and especially process emotions – that is to sort out how we feel about things that happened to us. Sometimes these dreams can be happy, sometimes exciting, and sometimes just plain boring… However, sometimes these dreams can be really, really scary – and this is known as a nightmare.

Nightmares are not always a sign that you are worried about something or have recently experienced something scary (like a scary movie), but sometimes they are related to something happening in your life. However, in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), patients often report having recurring nightmares where they re-live the trauma again and again during their dreams. It is thought that your brain is trying to understand and come to terms with emotions (such as from a trauma) during your dreams. In the case of PSTD, talking therapy can be helpful to help you with these unresolved emotions, so that you stop doing it at night. However, with nightmares without an identifiable cause, it can be helpful to try to re-imagine the ending of the dream to change the story from a scary one into one with a funny/cute ending.

If you had a bad dream that you were being chased by a monster, you can close your eyes and remember the scary dream but instead, re-imagine the ending – such as picture the monster that is chasing you falling into a sticky pool of toffee, and then imagine a hundred cute puppies running out of a nearby building and running all over the monster licking it and licking up the toffee making the ticklish monster laugh. Suddenly the dream isn’t so scary any more.

Dreamcatcher in warm morning sunshine
Night terrors

Night terrors are not the same as nightmares since they do not happen in dreaming sleep. Instead they occur in deep sleep. The person with the night terror will sit up in bed and open their eyes screaming and seem absolutely terrified, but they are not in fact awake nor are they really scared. Once they go back into a proper sleep, they will not remember the night terror the next morning. Night terrors are common in children, but can also happen in adults. They tend to much scarier for the person witnessing the night terror than they are for the person experiencing it themselves.

Unlike nightmares, they are not often linked to anything that has happened in the daytime, but they can be linked to poor sleep hygiene or being sleep deprived.

Sleep paralysis

This is a fascinating (and terrifying) experience that some people have when they wake up in bed but find that they cannot move – that they are paralysed. All over the world people with sleep paralysis describe feeling terrified and that they can see a scary figure at the foot of the bed – either a ghost, a witch or even an alien – but that they cannot move or speak. Sleep paralysis is a REM disorder because people wake from dreaming sleep, but their bodies are still asleep (your brain is partly awake, but your body is still sleeping). While we sleep our bodies are paralysed so that we do not act out our dreams, but during sleep paralysis the person has woken up but their body is still paralysed. The person will be awake and aware of their surroundings but also be aware that they cannot move.

Since people report seeing a figure at the foot of the bed, or sometimes that they are floating, it is thought that many alien visitation stories, or midnight ghost visits, may in fact be explained by sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is more common when you sleep on your back and if you are not regularly getting a good night’s sleep. It is also more common when you have recently had caffeine, alcohol or nicotine or are jetlagged.

Sleep walking
Image of a small statue of a man sleepwalking on top of a roof

Sleepwalking, where someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night and starts waking around, is not someone acting out their dreams. It happens during deep sleep, and the actions are always slow and common daytime actions. Sleepwalkers may get out of bed and go downstairs to eat food from the fridge, or open and close drawers or cupboards. Rarely, people have been reported to even drive a car while sleepwalking... and there was even the case of a Canadian man in 1987 who was found “not-gulity” of murder when he drove 20km to his mother-in-law’s house and killed her during a sleepwalking episode!

Sleepwalking is very common in children, but approximately 5% of adults still suffer from it. If you or a loved one sleepwalk, then it is important to make sure that they cannot be a danger to themselves while sleepwalking. A stair-gate can be helpful to stop people falling down the stairs, and locking upstairs windows will prevent people falling out of a window during an episode. As with sleep paralysis and night terrors, sleepwalking is more common when someone is not getting enough sleep.

Getting a good night's sleep

Making sure that you have a supportive and comfortable bed and mattress is one way that you can ensure that you get a good night’s sleep. Find more sleep tips from our sleep expert Dr Lindsay Browning on our And So To Bed sleep blog.


Dr Lindsay Browning from Trouble Sleeping is a sleep expert, Chartered Psychologist and neuroscientist. She is the Sleep Ambassador for And So To Bed. She is the author of the self-help sleep book Navigating Sleeplessness and can be found on all social media @DrBrowningSleep. Browning works with individuals and companies to educate about better sleep and to resolve sleep problems such as insomnia. You can follow her on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Posted by Dr Lindsay Browning
15th October 2020

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