Original Mandala by Anna Loscotoff. Drawing of experience with Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations, drawn on Procreate. Image of woman with blonde hair dreaming her arms are too long. She's sitting in blue bed with orange light in background. 2020.
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Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations

I recently had a rough night of sleep.  The hallucinations kept coming, one after another, for hours.  Because I understand what’s happening, or at least understand it’s not real, they don’t last as long as they used to.  I can generally pull myself out fairly quickly, but on nights like this, I become afraid to close my eyes again and the anxiety rises. The adrenaline and fear are exhausting and at a certain point, my brain begins to think something is really wrong. 

On this particular night, after hours of partially waking, I told my husband that I thought I was having strokes. I was mostly asleep, not fully conscious of what I was saying. Other nights I’ve told him I was having a heart attack.  One night, I got up and told my daughter, full of panic, that my arms were too long. Yes, my arms were too long.  In reality, my brain is somewhere in the in-between; not yet awake, not completely asleep.

Anna sleeping at around 5 years of age with her dog.

When I was in high school I slept with my lamp on.  My dad, always conscious of the energy bill, would come in at 2 or 3 in the morning, my light having somehow woke him. He would switch it off, unintentionally waking me, and quietly reprimand me for keeping it on. 

I’ve come to learn it was a sleep survival instinct. Research has shown that increasing light pulls the individual out of the hallucination.  That’s why, in second grade, the skeleton on my shelf didn’t disappear just because my dad came into the room.  It disappeared when he turned on the light.

Many nights, with the lights off, I would see doors in my bedroom walls.  My brain told me I needed to go through the doors, curious about where they went.  Only I couldn’t get to them, something was in the way.  That something was often a dresser or bookshelf, and I would fully wake up trying to move them.

You’d think a solution would be to sleep with the light on.  As an adult, I wish that were an option.  I do sleep with a salt lamp, but that often feels too bright and doesn’t allow me to fully sleep.  Nightlights cause shadows.  Those shadows become stories, creatures, forms.  Those shadows become anxieties in my sleeping mind. 

I go through stages of hallucinations, my mind fixating on certain subjects, sometimes for years at a time. I’ve had weeks of aliens coming through the ceiling, years of an important ring that I have lost or swallowed (and the loss of that ring to my sleeping mind will end the world), fairies flying around the room, and floods. Lately, my mind has had a preoccupation with electricity. All of these are symbolic visions of where my subconscious is centered. I will go more into symbolism, both in dreams and in hallucinations, in future posts.

Could there be something really wrong? This condition can be found in completely normal, healthy individuals, but there are some genuine medical reasons that people experience nocturnal hallucinations.  I just don’t seem to have any of them.  I don’t have hallucinations during the day, either visual or auditory, which is common in Schizophrenia.  I don’t have Epilepsy.  I don’t use drugs or alcohol.  No sight deprivation, Parkinson’s, or Lewy body dementia. 

Complex Nocturnal Hallucinations are also common in Narcolepsy, however, Narcolepsy has several other defining factors such as excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep paralysis (neither are issues that affect me.) Also, it started when I was in 1st grade, (perhaps earlier, I just don’t have the conscious memory), which makes me think it is just how my brain fires. 

What types of things have you experienced while sleeping?  Any common symbols that keep coming up for you?

Want to explore deeper?  Here are some studies about Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucination:

Complex Visual Hallucinations in Mentally Healthy People

Complex Visual Hallucinations; Clinical and Neurobiological Insights

What You Should Know About Sleep-Related Hallucinations

Melatonin-Responsive Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations

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  1. I started of having night terrors. I was preteen then. My stepfather told my to be a man and suck it up. Stay in bed. So I did as I was more afraid of him than the thing walking across my bedroom. At the same time I would have visions of globes of light in the room. Whenever a nightmare (there were plenty) would be coming I heard sound effects like Hum Hum Hum getting louder each hum. Then I knew the nightmare would start. I also would get sleep paralysis so I couldn’t get out of bed. After a long time I began to combat these feeling and learned to overcome them. It stopped before I joined the Army. Then just before I got out the hallucinations started. Fortunately my new wife thought they were funny. If you want to learn more about my adventures let me know. By the way I turned 74 today. Long time to live with and learn about them.

    1. Hi Carl! First of all, HAPPY 74th BIRTHDAY!!!!

      I’m sorry you had a stepfather who treated you this way. I often wonder how these early responses might cause the terrors to grow, making them bigger in response to having been ignored. It sounds like he was a cruel, or at least scary man, from your comment on being more afraid of him. Do you think those early night terrors could have been triggered from him and that fear?

      A lot of people describe the globes of light as something supernatural, spirit based. Do you think these were part of the hallucinations, or something more? Or perhaps a part of the sleep paralysis.

      Luckily, sleep paralysis is not something I’ve had to deal with. It sounds terrifying from the posts I’ve read. It did happen to me once, as a kid, on a long family car ride. I remember waking, hearing the conversation of my parents, drool running down my chin, I was completely overheated. I remember that inability to open my eyes or move any part of my body and how the inner terror grew. I remember telling myself to go back to sleep, and think I eventually did. What I remember most was how uncomfortable my body was, feeling trapped inside.

      Thank you for your military service. I’d love to hear any stories/adventures you’d like to share!

  2. I too have had issues with sleep from a young age. “Monsters” used to circle my bed every night, from 4 yrs old til I started sleeping on the floor. I would have the same dream almost nightly. Very scary, I learned how to change the dream. I somehow was able to take control of the nightmare. I would see the nightmare as a drawing, an illustration, I was the illustrator – I would crumble the drawing up and start drawing something happy and safe.
    In high school I removed my bed, problem wasn’t solved. I then removed the mirror. I was convinced things entered through the mirror. Dang i read way too much. I probably sounds crazy but oh well- i think there are people who attract things (wasn’t the place – it followed from previous home) and there are ways that evil can enter.
    I no longer have the ability to take over dreams. I no longer remember any dreams. I no longer sleep more than 2 hrs uninterrupted, no more than 4 hrs total a night. I do not feel tired or run down. I wake up fully ready to go, never dragging. I say it is my superpower but know this cannot be healthy. I don’t forget things, quite the opposite – I remember too much. That along with never a hang over (i drink at times to be able to sleep, at times – ok so that is probably an understatement, no matter how much I over do things, it is more-so a curse not a superpower.

    1. Hi Fel, It’s so interesting that you talk about the monsters circling your bed! I had that too. I slept on the top bunk of a bunk bed (from around age 5-10) and I would wake up and see typical Halloween type monsters (vampires and such) walking in a circle around my bed. And their heads were the appropriate height for an adult, just where my parent’s heads would have been. My bunkbed was pressed against the wall, but the monster visions still managed to walk through the wall as if my brain didn’t see the wall there.

      It’s really neat that you learned how to control the dreams, especially your description “like an illustrator.” I was never able to do that, the closest I’ve come is just being able to acknowledge that I’m in a half-state, and wake myself up. Unfortunately, more often than not, the panic is what wakes me and I sit and try to calm my breathing down. I did have 3-4 years straight of nightmares in high school, every single night. I found those worse than the hallucinations, I would wake up sobbing and hoping it wasn’t real.

      I hear what you are saying about how it can’t be good for us… I think there must be a certain havoc wreaked on our adrenals. Even if we aren’t exhausted during the day, our brains and bodies are constantly going through a survival process at night.

      Thank you Fel for taking the time to come and read my post and share your story!

    1. Hi Jessica, thanks for stopping by and reading my blog! From my reading, spiders are a surprisingly common hallucination for people with Nocturnal Hallucinations. I’m happy to say I haven’t experienced the spiders or insects… not that aliens are any better, but I can’t imagine that constant spider anxiety when going to sleep. (I wonder if it has to do with natural fears? I like spiders for the most part, they don’t bother me, and maybe it’s more common to see them if you instinctually don’t like them.)

  3. I’m so thankful I found this post. I’ve been suffering from CNVH since I was little. For a long time I thought my first experience of this was in middle school, but looking back and remembering the demon in the corner of my room as a child, I’m pretty sure it’s always been like this. Like you, I am healthy. I don’t have any medical reason to explain why I see the things I do at night. I’m 26 and a mother to a 15 month old. Before she was born, my more simple hallucinations were typically of wild animals/bugs running across my legs, up the walls, or under the bed. There were many nights I got down on the floor looking for them. My husband would wake up and try to talk me out of it, but it was like I couldn’t hear him. I was awake, aware, and in control of my actions, but I just couldn’t see or hear him. Usually, I would turn the flashlight on my phone to look for the animal and that would be what pulled me out of it. This happened almost every night. Now my almost nightly hallucination usually revolves around my daughter dangling off our bed, I reach for her quickly and completely unaware of my sleeping husband. Once I get to that side of the bed and she’s not there and my husband is asking why I hit him, I’m usually fully out of it. I apologize, tell him I was seeing things and go back to sleep. She doesn’t even sleep in our room. On the bad nights, it’s usually some disfigured human somewhere in the room. It once happened so bad it lasted for almost ten minutes and I barricaded myself in the bathroom screaming for help the entire time. The scariest part of my hallucinations is that I am not aware of the people around me. My husband can fend for himself, he tries to help me, but once when my daughter was a newborn I had hopped out of bed ready to run from a headless man. I only made it to the other side of the bed before coming out of it. I was holding my daughter, I had no idea I had her. I gave her to my husband and cried for hours. What if I had dropped her? That was the third time I’d seen a doctor for this, they told me it was the anxiety of being a new mom and that I was just dreaming vividly. It didn’t matter I said this has been happening my whole life or that I was completely aware of everything and I ALWAYS remembered it. I got brushed off. This article is the first time anyone else has ever really explained what I going through. I’ve been in sleep walking/night terror/nightmare support groups looking for answers for years but nothing ever really fit. Thank you for sharing your story, it’s really helped me.

    1. Hi Samantha! Thank you so much for your story, and I’m so sorry that you going through this, especially with the increased elements around your daughter. My daughter is 16 now, and a few weeks ago my husband was away for the night, so she slept in our room. In the middle of the night, I threw my body over hers trying to save her from some sort of bomb or nuclear blast. I was shaking her and crying and screaming, and this is what she wakes up to. She understands my sleep disorder, but I have the fear that you do, that I could somehow hurt her or my husband through this process. Something that has helped me, not with the hallucinations so much, but with my anxiety around them, is that I recently bought myself an “Oura” ring. It tracks your sleep, so I can see how much deep sleep I’m getting vs how much REM. My hallucinations seem to have 2 different paths; panic type attacks where I come directly out of deep sleep, and calmer hallucinations coming out of REM. I can also see that on these nights, my heart rate isn’t dropping into a restful state as much as it should. The ring is basically allowing me to look at my sleep like a science experiment, not fixing it. My dr did offer me a medication that helps with muscle movement, but the side effects concern me and I figured the ring would let me watch before I make a medication decision. (The ring also shows you movement.). Also, there is a group on Facebook, if you’re on Facebook, called “Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations Support Group.” There are 1.4K members, and that really helped me realize that I’m not alone in this. You aren’t alone in this. Feel free to reach out again, either here or through email. anna@loscotoff.com

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