This is what exploding head syndrome really feels like

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Bang! The sound, like a gun firing or a metal case crashing to the floor, wakes me up. My heart is pounding. I frantically look around my room, my head spinning. Am I being robbed? Is my cat trying to finally kill me? Seriously, what the f**k was that?


But it's nothing. I am surrounded by silence, and the room is unchanged. I'm confused. There's no way that sound was just in my head. I didn't imagine it, I heard it. I am officially going crazy.

Or so I thought, until a study started making headlines this week. Turns out I'm not so loco after all. I did hear the noise, but it was also just in my head. No guns were fired on the mean streets of Santa Monica.


Clearly I'm not a doctor and shouldn't be making official diagnoses, but it sure seems like the phenomenon I experience is "exploding head syndrome," characterized by the perception of abrupt loud noises when going to sleep or waking up. Check, check, and check.

According to research published last month in the Journal of Sleep Research, the condition may be more common than previously thought, especially among young people.

For the study, researchers from Washington State University trained in recognizing symptoms of exploding head syndrome analyzed 211 undergrads and found that it happened in 18 percent of participants. For you math nerds, that's nearly one in five. While the research sheds new light on the condition, no large-scale studies have been conducted, so little is known about its wider rate in society.

So what's really happening in my brain?

There are several theories behind exploding head syndrome, including disturbances in the middle ear, partial seizures, sudden withdrawal from antidepressant medications—even genetic mutations.


But the most popular theory, according to the researchers, is based on "brainstem neuronal dysfunction" during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. In layman's terms, it means that, when falling asleep, the brain begins shutting down—but sometimes, there is a delay in the shut-down process, causing all our neurons to fire at once, resulting in deafening "sounds" and sometimes even "light flashes." An exploding head.

"That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” Brian Sharpless, an author of the study, said in a statement.


When you're living through it, the experience can feel very scary (especially for people who believe in ghosts, or so I'm told). It really feels like something crashed or exploded. Like you might die. Then poof—it's gone.

As for its effect on my life? In some ways, knowing it's a real syndrome makes it scarier. Luckily, Sharpless and his team say there's nothing to stress over. Probably.


"In most cases it does indeed appear to be a benign and relatively harmless condition, but distress during episodes is very common," he wrote in the study. Not much treatment is available, but they are testing some medications.

Since I only experience it once a week or so, I'm not eager to medicate myself. It's not impeding my life, minus the occasional panic. Even Sharpless said the best way to deal with it might just be to understand it.


"There’s the possibility that just being able to recognize it and not be afraid of it can make it better," he said.

You know what else might make it better? Not calling it "exploding head syndrome." Just sayin'.


Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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