What Causes Dreams of Falling?

You've probably had one before, but did you know falling dreams can be related to stress?
What Causes Dreams of Falling?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 01 August, 2022

Dreams of falling are relatively common. At least 95% of people have had one. They create sudden anxiety that can startle us and wake us up. What causes these types of dreams?

Possible Explanations for Dreaming of Falling

A girl dreaming that she is falling

Actually, dreaming of falling is pretty common. You fall asleep and just begin to dream when suddenly you’re falling into an abyss. Then, the ground disappears from under your feet or you fall off the edge of a cliff and experience that frightening sensation of falling.

Your heart is racing and you’re startled awake with anxiety attached to your heart and mind. You may even think you’ve somehow fallen out of bed, and in some cases people actually do. What causes this phenomenon?

1.  It occurs during the first stages of sleep

A girl sleeping on a chair

If you remember these dreams, you’ll realize they occur within minutes of falling asleep. At the Sleep Lab at the Hospital in Madrid, Spain, they’ve researched this phenomenon and concluded that it is a result of a tiny imbalance between the vestibular system (located in the ears) and the kinesthetic system.

The body has not yet adapted to a lying position which forces us to wake up with a feeling that we’re falling. This makes many people actually fall out of bed.

Learn more about the stages of sleep: Do You Know the Incredible Stages of Sleep?

2.  Stress is also an important factor

Anatomical image of a brain

Now, try to remember your emotional state when you experienced this phenomenon. Dreams in which you’re falling are also associated with stress. We subject our minds to high activity levels; cortisol accelerates core functions and brain waves are at maximum activity. When we lay down, however, our bodies relax, but the mind remains active, much more than normal.

And then, a new imbalance happens, an overactive brain in a relaxed body. This leads to a sensation of falling that is translated into your dreams, startling you awake.

3.  The phenomenon of sleep paralysis

A girl having a falling dream above water

We’ve talked about sleep paralysis in another article on sleep disorders. This occurs when we become conscious that we are having a nightmare, but cannot wake up. The feeling is very vivid and intense, sometimes even terrifying, because of how real everything seems.

When we dream we’re falling, it’s an unpleasant experience that makes us want to wake up before we hit the ground. We’ll conclude by stating that the main cause of this phenomenon is stress.

The brain is overexcited, leading to an imbalance between the body and mind during the initial stages of sleep. The brain reacts to this imbalance by producing anxiety-filled dreams.

4. A different theory to dreams of falling

There is also the theory that dreams of falling are an inherited instinct from our early hominid ancestors who slept in trees and would have to suddenly wake up to avoid falling. Early primates like monkeys had to sleep in trees. It was a natural instinct for them to have a sensation of falling once they had just fallen asleep.

This would wake them up to assure they didn’t fall from their trees where they were sleeping. You jerk yourself awake from your sleep, therefore why it is called a hypnic jerk. You can read more about this theory in the link provided. Interesting, right?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Tirapu-Ustárroz, J. (2012). Neuropsicología de los sueños. Revista de Neurologia.
  • Brailowsky, S. (1998). Las sustancias de los sueños: neuropsicofarmacología. La ciencia para todos.
  • Gómez Milán, E. (2008). El sueño. Vasa.
  • Cuellar NG, Whisenant D, Stanton MP. Hypnic Jerks A Scoping Literature Review. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2015.
  • Sathe H, Karia S, Desousa A, Shah N. Hypnic jerks possibly induced by escitalopram. Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice. 2015.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.