Can Sleep Deprivation or Insomnia Cause Hallucinations to Occur?

Seeing Things May Occur with Extreme Sleep Loss

Sleep deprivation or insomnia may cause visual hallucinations with sleep loss
Sleep deprivation or insomnia may cause visual hallucinations with sleep loss. Peter Dazely/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

If you have ever experienced extreme sleep deprivation, you may begin to question your sanity, especially if you start to see things that you know are not there. You may even wonder: Can sleep deprivation or insomnia cause hallucinations to occur? Learn about the role of losing sleep and the subsequent development of visual hallucinations. Find out when it occurs, how long it takes for hallucinations to develop with sleep loss, and how to reverse the effects.

The Role of Sleep Deprivation in Hallucinations

There are many reasons that people get inadequate sleep and become sleep deprived, from the demands of work and even home life to sleep problems like insomnia. Depending on the degree of sleep deprivation—both how little we sleep and for how long we are sleep deprived—there can begin to be important consequences to our health and well-being.

Total sleep deprivation, in which no sleep is obtained for several nights in a row, certainly can be a trigger. Chronically obtaining too few hours of rest may likewise have a cumulative role. The degree of sleep deprivation required to start to experience side effects likely varies for each person depending on their individual sleep needs and genetic predisposition towards hallucinations. If someone needs 10 hours of sleep to feel rested, but only gets 8 hours, they will gradually become sleep deprived even though they may seem to be getting enough sleep based on the population average.

Sleep deprivation can affect both children and adults. Adolescents with delayed sleep phase syndrome may have difficulty meeting their sleep needs due to a delay in the onset of sleep and required wake times for school.

Hallucinations Occur with Sleep Deprivation and Mental Illness

Beginning to hallucinate is among the more common symptoms of sleep deprivation.

A hallucination is the perception of something that is not really present in the environment, as opposed to an illusion, which is the misinterpretation of something that is present. For example, seeing a cat where there is nothing is a hallucination, but mistaking your coat rack for a person is an illusion.

Depending on the length of sleep deprivation, approximately 80% of normal people in the population will eventually have hallucinations. Most of these are visual hallucinations. In contrast, people with schizophrenia often have auditory hallucinations, hearing sounds (often voices) that are not there.

Sleep deprivation can actually cause other symptoms that mimic mental illness, such as disorientation and paranoid thoughts. The affected person may be confused about details related to time or location. The paranoia may lead to feelings of persecution. In fact, one study found that 2% of 350 people who were sleep deprived for 112 hours experienced temporary conditions that were similar to acute paranoid schizophrenia.

Fortunately, these symptoms resolve when adequate sleep is obtained. So if you see something that isn’t there during a period of sleep deprivation, don't fret: it might simply be time to get some rest.

There is considerable evidence that just one night of adequate recovery sleep can be enough to reverse the various effects of sleep deprivation. If your symptoms persist despite getting adequate rest, consider speaking with your doctor.

Sources:

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 6th edition, 2017.

Mullaney, DJ et al. "Sleep Loss and Nap Effects on Sustained Continuous Performance." Psychophysiol 1983;20:643-651.

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