Can Sleep Deprivation or Insomnia Cause Hallucinations to Occur?

If you've ever experienced extreme sleep deprivation, you may begin to question your sanity, especially if you start seeing things that you know are not there.

No wonder the question has crossed your mind: Can sleep deprivation or insomnia really cause hallucinations?

Learn about the role of losing sleep and the subsequent development of visual hallucinations. Find out when they occur, how long it takes for hallucinations to develop, and how to reverse the effects.

What Are Hallucinations?

A hallucination is the perception of something that is not actually present in the environment. It differs from an illusion, which is the misinterpretation of something that is present.

For example, seeing a cat that isn't there is a hallucination. Mistaking a coat rack for a person is an illusion.

Hallucinations can take place in any of the five senses: auditory, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), or visual. Overall, auditory hallucinations are most common.

Possible causes of sleep deprivation
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

There are many reasons that people get inadequate sleep and become sleep deprived. Some causes are obvious while others may require evaluation and testing in a sleep clinic. 

Consider the most common reasons why adults fail to get the seven to eight hours of sleep they need per night:

Depending on the degree of sleep deprivation—both how little you sleep and for how long you are sleep deprived—significant consequences affecting your health and well-being may occur.

Sleep Losses Add Up

Total sleep deprivation, or when you get no sleep for several nights in a row, can be a huge trigger for hallucinations. Chronically getting too few hours of rest per night may play a cumulative role.

But you can't always put sleep on a scale. In other words, if someone needs 10 hours of sleep to function well during the day but gets only eight hours, they will gradually become sleep deprived. This occurs even though they may seem to be getting enough sleep based on the population average, which says that many adults need about eight hours of sleep per night.

The degree of sleep deprivation required to start to experience side effects often varies, depending on an individual's sleep needs and genetic predisposition toward hallucinations.

Hallucination Due to Sleep Deprivation

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

About 80% of people will hallucinate if they've been severely sleep deprived. "Severe" means getting only a few hours of sleep over one night to going several days without sleep. Most of these incidents involve visual hallucinations.

In contrast, people with schizophrenia often have auditory hallucinations, hearing sounds (often voices) that are not there. These voices may even tell the affected person what to do. This phenomenon is called command hallucinations.

Effects in Children and Teenagers

Sleep deprivation can affect both children and adults. Children need more sleep, and not getting it may lead to behavioral and growth problems. They may even hallucinate.

Adolescents who are night owls 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.

Falling asleep late and waking too early may lead to cumulative sleep loss. Some adolescents may try "catching up" by napping or sleeping more on weekends. But nothing can replace the restorative effects of a good night's sleep.

The Sleep and Mental Health Connection

It can be frightening to hallucinate. But it should also make sense how sleep and mental health are so closely connected.

Sleep and mental health have a synergistic relationship, meaning the poor sleep patterns can affect your mental health as much as psychiatric conditions can impair sleep. Harvard Medical School notes that "Sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health. And those with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders."

In a typical psychiatric practice, as many as 80% of patients deal with chronic sleep problems. This compares to between 10% and 18% of adults in the general population.

People with anxiety, depressionbipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have sleep problems, too.

Self-Care Should End Hallucinations 

Addressing the underlying causes of sleep deprivation often involves more than making a concerted effort to get more sleep. Think of sleep as a first step as you:

  • Exercise regularly and follow a healthy diet.
  • Develop a relaxation routine that you can do each night.
  • Improve your so-called "sleep hygiene" by avoiding coffee, alcohol, and nicotine before bedtime, eating your last snack or meal at least three hours before you go to sleep, and creating a peaceful bedroom environment.
  • See a healthcare provider if your best efforts fall short.

In the end, you should do more than improve the quality of your sleep. You should prevent sleep deprivation from affecting your physical and mental health, too.

Summary

No one knows better than you do why you're sleep deprived. But if you're starting to hallucinate—or believe that you see something that really is not there—you may be heartened to know that you're not alone: Hallucinations are among the more common symptoms of sleep deprivation. In fact, by some accounts, about 80% of people hallucinate if they've been severely sleep deprived. An obvious solution to both problems is getting more sleep. But taking other proactive steps may help, too.

A Word From Verywell

If your symptoms persist despite getting adequate rest, consult your healthcare provider. Further evaluation may be necessary to get to the bottom of the problem. Your provider may even recommend that you see a sleep specialist who treats sleep disorders.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many days of sleep deprivation does it take before someone experiences hallucinations?

    Some studies show that perceptual changes, such as hallucinations, begin after just one or two nights without sleep.

  • How quickly can you recover from sleep deprivation?

    It can take several days to recover from sleep deprivation. Even one hour of sleep deprivation can put someone in a sleep deficit for up to four days.

  • What are other symptoms of sleep deprivation?

    Aside from hallucinations, other symptoms of sleep deprivation include slower cognitive function, reduced attention span, memory lapses, and mood changes.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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