It’s a sleep experience shared by many: awakening abruptly from a dream, wet with sweat, grateful that you’re not actually drowning.
Our recalled dreams often consist of imagery that is unpleasant. Visual images can range from monsters to some amorphous figure coming after you. Just as frightening, however, are the formless, soundless sensations you may feel given the place and circumstance you’re in during the dream.
One dream element that I often hear about in clinic is the feeling of drowning or suffocating. This sensation is described by my patients in many various ways: the imagery can be very specific, such as swimming in the middle of the ocean, sharks and fish surrounding the dreamer as he or she is slowly but surely pulled under the surface, or vague and nonspecific, such as the general feeling of air escaping the lungs and throat. The feeling of asphyxiation may be associated with imagery of water submersion, a premature burial, perhaps, or hands or rope constricting one’s throat. Common to these different scenarios, however, are the terror felt upon abruptly arousing from the dream and substantial relief upon realization that it was a dream. Sometimes patients suddenly sit bolt upright out of breath, or even jump out of bed and run to an open window to get some air, because the sensation of breathlessness is so intense and uncomfortable.
Such dreams may occur out of nowhere and for no discernible reason. However, there is a sleep disorder that can often cause people to awaken abruptly from a dream with the sensation of air hunger. Obstructive sleep apnea is a breathing disorder in which one’s upper airway collapses or closes down episodically during sleep. One thing that is important to know is that sleep apnea is often made worse in the setting of rapid eye movement (REM, or dream) sleep.
There are a couple reasons why this is the case. We humans naturally breathe more erratically during REM sleep. In addition, during REM sleep most of your body muscles are temporarily paralyzed (otherwise we’d all be in bed physically enacting our dreams); under normal circumstances, there is minimal sustained muscular tone while you’re dreaming. Your airway therefore may be more prone to collapse, and for longer periods of time. As such, people with untreated sleep apnea often demonstrate a substantially worsening of the sleep apnea during dream sleep: in analysis of overnight sleep studies, for example, it’s common to see longer pauses in breathing and dramatically more severe blood oxygen abnormalities during REM sleep as compared to during other sleep stages.
So here is my suggestion. If you awaken abruptly from dream imagery of drowning or suffocating, such that you feel like you had not been breathing or like you were not getting in enough air, ask your bed partner if you’re snoring loudly, gasping, or sounding like you’re stopping your breathing during sleep. If there are no bed partners or roommates, ask yourself if you’ve awakened hearing a brief snort or with a brief gasping sensation out of sleep, including without preceding recollection of dream imagery. Also determine in your mind if you have daytime sleepiness: a tendency to fall asleep by accident while sedentary during the day or to become drowsy when you shouldn’t, such as while driving. If you’re experiencing such things, you probably would benefit from seeing a doc like me. Sleep apnea is an imminently treatable problem, and this frightening sensation of dreaming of being underwater usually evaporates with treatment.
Have a good day and stay dry, everyone!