Could you imagine waking up and being unable to move your body or say anything? Sounds terrifying, right?
Well for 8% of the population, it is a reality. They wake up and feel trapped in their body for seconds or minutes at a time. Welcome to the scary world of sleep paralysis…
For some people, it only happens once in their life and that is enough to leave them never wanting to experience it again. But for some people, it is a regular occurrence where their worst nightmares come to life.
[Sleep paralysis is] a discrete period of time during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet ocular and respiratory movements are intact.
While there is a scientific explanation to why sleep paralysis happens, for people who experience the intense phenomena, it can feel supernatural. Some sufferers recall hallucinating and seeing figures around them; some even report feeling like something is sat on their chest.
Of course, the feeling of having a tight chest could be totally down to the anxiety caused by the scary sensations of sleep paralysis. But nevertheless, it is a terrifying condition that has had people spooked throughout the centuries.
Remember the Salem witch trials and people’s claims of alien abduction? They could all be down to sleep paralysis.
Alien abductions, incubi and succubi, and ‘demons’ that attack while people sleep are all different cultural interpretations of sleep paralysis. Even the Salem witch trials are thought to have been caused by the townspeople experiencing sleep paralysis. Of course in those days, people were more superstitious and it was easier to believe it was caused by supernatural forces…
There are three types of experiences that people have during their sleep paralysis. These include the presence of an intruder, pressure on the chest and, sometimes, levitation or an out-of-body experience.
So why does sleep paralysis happen?
Well, it’s all down to not waking up correctly from the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep.
When you enter the REM stage of sleep (the final in the sleep cycle), your body tells the muscles to relax and you go into a state of paralysis. During sleep paralysis, the eyes open and the brain starts to wake up but the body remains frozen in REM atonia. So people become alert while stuck in the stage of sleep. It can take from a few seconds to a few minutes before the paralysis subsides.
Surprisingly, you can experience sleep paralysis whilst waking up or falling asleep. When the body has trouble transitioning between the sleep stages, that is when paralysis can happen. If you suffer from it while falling asleep it is called hypnagogic sleep paralysis. Alternatively, it is called hypnopompic sleep paralysis if it happens as you wake up.
But while some people are so afraid of their sleep paralysis that they avoid drifting off to sleep, some people don’t mind them and even find a thrill in the experience.
What if I get sleep paralysis?
Everybody has the risk of experiencing sleep paralysis any time you go to sleep; there are no concrete indicators for why it happens. People just experience it differently.
To avoid the risk of experiencing sleep paralysis, try to get a good night’s sleep – research has shown that the fewer sleep people get, the higher their chance of experiencing sleep disorders.
To avoid sleep disorders, try to get quality sleep each night and avoid things that affect you drifting off into a deep sleep. Factors such as drinking alcohol and eating right before bedtime can affect your quality of sleep.
Research has shown that sleep paralysis is not dangerous. It does not cause physical harm to the body and there are no clinical deaths known to date. The biggest thing is to educate people to not be afraid. In all likelihood, they just need more rest. If they get enough sleep and the episodes continue with any regularity, then they should go to a sleep disorder specialist. – Michael Breus
If you wake up and feel like you can’t move, try to remain calm. The symptoms of sleep paralysis gradually wear off; it can just sometimes take a couple of minutes for your body to catch up with your brain.
What can I do to fix it?
Try breathing deeply and remain rational during your temporary paralysis. There is nothing else in the room with you and you haven’t died (as some people claim they feel). When you’re able, try to wiggle your toes and fingers gently; it will gradually help to warm up your muscles and urge them to kick into action.
As much as there have been studies on sleep paralysis, nobody has yet found concrete evidence as to why this phenomenon happens and what can be done to prevent it. All that scientists know is that it eventually passes; sufferers just have to be patient… and brave!
Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? If you are struggling to drift off to sleep due to the anxiety of experiencing sleep paralysis, why not try to soothe yourself with a soundscape or a story over on our Sleepiest app. The sound of someone else’s voice in the room may help to relax you into a sleepy state and help you feel safe.