Exploding Head Syndrome is Actually a Thing!

The auditory equivalent of a sneeze?

This is my favorite gif.

It perfectly describes how I feel about the political state of this country, how I feel when I’m not taken seriously, how I feel when I see a blatant injustice that is being overlooked, how I feel when confronted with climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers and scientologists hellbent on recruiting and people who can’t be bothered to recycle. It’s also how I feel when my favorite Indian restaurant is fresh out of Palak Paneer after I’ve driven 30 miles out of my way for it.

Yeah. I’ve been known to overreact. So sue me.

When discussing some newly acquired frustration with a friend, I often end with the phrase, “my head nearly exploded.”

This, despite the fact that you’ll find none of my brain matter scattered anywhere on this globe. (Yeah. I’m prone to hyperbole, too.)

But when searching for this gif to show someone, imagine my surprise when instead I stumbled upon something called Exploding Head Syndrome. It’s actually a thing! Really. I swear. You can even find it in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, along with the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

Now, as a general rule, if someone’s head were to explode without the aid of some outside projectile, or at the very least without an unpleasant impact with an extremely hard surface, it would be safe to assume that we’d all hear about it one way or another. (You know, people talk. That’s why all of us have heard of spontaneous human combustion, but none of us have witnessed it.)

I’ve yet to hear of any spontaneous head explosions outside of the realm of SciFi. And thank goodness. That would be scary and gross, and probably a health hazard for everyone in the vicinity.

The thing that really startled me about EHS is that after reading about it, I am certain that I’ve experienced it. Fortunately, it’s not fatal or painful. It’s not even worth treating unless it’s radically disturbing your sleep on a regular basis. That’s a load off.

Here’s how EHS manifests itself for me. I’m nestled all snug in my bed, as the saying goes, and I’m just starting to drift off to sleep when… Bang! I hear what sounds like a metal pot being dropped on the floor in the kitchen. I’m jerked awake, and the transition is so abrupt that for a minute I have no idea where I am. And then I roll over and fall back to sleep.

It happens 3 or 4 times a year. I’ve never given it much thought. And even though Dear Husband is sound asleep beside me and no one else should be in the house, not once have I ever gotten up to investigate. On some level I always know not to bother.

I’m briefly startled, yes. Then I have vague thoughts that if that crash had been legitimate, and not the stuff of my imagination, then surely the dogs and Dear Husband would be reacting in some way. But they never do. So, off I drift, and I rarely even think about it again the next day.

Not a huge deal. But strange, in retrospect, that my whole life I’ve just kind of incorporated it into my being. Maybe I’ve always assumed that it was the auditory equivalent of a sneeze.

Even though the current name for this phenomenon is Exploding Head Syndrome, there has been a movement to change its name to Episodic Cranial Sensory Shock instead. That would be a hard no from me. (Not that anyone has asked my opinion on the subject.)

I think it would be fun to ask if anyone else has Exploding Head Syndrome at a dinner party. In contrast, the other name sounds painful and debilitating and frightening and would probably cause everyone to look down at their cutlery in embarrassed silence.

Very few studies have been done on this syndrome. I suspect it will always be relegated to the scientific back burner, since it doesn’t even occur to the majority of us to mention it to our health care providers. Researchers have much bigger fish to fry. And big pharma isn’t going to underwrite a study that wouldn’t result in massive pill sales.

There are theories, of course, as to what causes EHS. The one I find most plausible is that it’s triggered by anxiety, stress, or PTSD. But I imagine that conspiracy theorists could have a field day with it. An attempt at communication or torture by Martians, perhaps? If so, they aren’t very technologically advanced.

Learning about Exploding Head Syndrome has also enlightened me about a loosely related phenomenon. I now know that it’s called a hypnic jerk. I get those, too, and have therefore been searching for their proper name my whole life.

A hypnic jerk is that involuntary twitch that seventy percent of us have experienced just as we’re falling to sleep. With me, it’s usually my right leg, but occasionally it’s my whole body, which is extremely startling. And then there are those times when I’m convinced that I’m falling, and suddenly snap awake just before I hit the ground. Those definitely get my attention. For lack of a better term, I’ve always called them “body twangs.” But when I tell doctors this, they look at me as if I have two heads.

One time, I was sleeping with my arm bent and my hand close to my head. Then I had a hypnic jerk in that arm and punched myself in the face. There’s nothing quite like waking up angry, and then discovering that there’s no one but you to chastise.

I know one guy who has a hypnic jerk every single time he goes to sleep, without fail. It’s a handy clue if you need to know his level of consciousness. You just wait for the jerk. Going… going… boing! Gone.

Apparently, hypnic jerks are caused by anxiety or caffeine or stress. They’re more common in people with irregular sleep schedules. (That would be me.) But again, they’re not particularly disruptive for me. It feels kind of like my tendons are made out of rubber bands and suddenly they’re no longer stretched. Boi-oi-oi-ng! Life goes on. But it’s nice to finally have a name for what’s happening.

If you are one of the unfortunate few whose life is really disrupted by Exploding Head Syndrome or hypnic jerks, my apologies for making light of it. It must be horrible and exhausting and life changing. I hate that for you.

But for most of us, it’s just weird and mildly annoying. I’m grateful that I fall in with the majority for once in my life. I’m not sure my heart could take it if I were constantly startled out of my sleep.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

2 thoughts on “Exploding Head Syndrome is Actually a Thing!”

  1. There’s also a connection to tinnitus auditory disturbances which are always worse for me at night along with restless legs and arms. Ever heard an unfamiliar voice call your name as you drift off? Worse than a loud bang. Makes you feel haunted. Been sleep deprived most my life. Really look forward to endoscopies where they knock me out for 1/2 an hour. Only time I get blissful deep sleep. Going to send you a foil hat to block all those frequencies that are targeting you when you’re trying to sleep. 🙂 But seriously, some conspiracy theories are a reality even if we can’t yet prove them https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/havana-syndrome-symptoms-small-group-likely-caused-directed-energy-say-rcna14584

    1. 1)I have, indeed heard my name called, once or twice. At least the voice didn’t sound angry or hostile or afraid, so I kind of just… I don’t know, accepted it. 2) Looking forward to an endoscopy is a whole new level of sleep deprivation! 3) Thanks for the thought, but save the postage as I’m already adequately foiled. 🙂 4) I have bookmarked the article, thanks!

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