Why Can Sleep Paralysis Be So Scary?
Sufferers of sleep paralysis share their experiences.
Sleep paralysis, as defined by Medical News Today, is "an inability to move the body when falling asleep or on waking, lasting for seconds or several minutes."
One of the major causes of sleep paralysis is sleep deprivation, or a lack of sleep. It can occur in otherwise healthy people but research shows that a changing sleep schedule, sleeping on your back, certain medications, and other worrisome problems, such as narcolepsy and cataplexy may also be linked to increased risk of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis may often run in families and usually manifests most prominently in adolescents.
Sisters Louise, 50, and Sally, 48, both experienced sleep paralysis numerous times as children. Louise said, “I don’t know much about the actual medical reasons for sleep paralysis and I don’t think I put a name to it at the time. I don’t remember seeing anything or hearing voices during the sleep paralysis, but it was enough to make me afraid to go to sleep. I would sometimes stay awake all night.”
Sally’s experience was comparable; she said it was “really scary.” She added, “I woke up one morning and couldn’t move or speak at all, I couldn’t open my eyes and my body felt like lead. I tried really hard to move but couldn’t at all. I was fully awake in my head and didn’t know what was happening. Eventually I managed to open my eyes and I was able to move, but it took a few minutes before I could actually get out of bed. I can remember being scared that it might happen again, I didn’t really understand and was afraid that next time I might not be able to escape from it. It probably did happen about half a dozen times.”
A key preventative measure is keeping bedtime at a consistency; regularly get eight hours of sleep a day, go to bed at roughly the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning. You can try sleeping in any position except your back.
It is less common to have sleep paralysis if you sleep on your side or stomach and even less common to have an episode if you sleep a bit elevated, so a wedge pillow that raises you up a bit may help. Bulk up some pillow behind your back if you’re prone to tipping over to your back while sleeping on your side.
Sleep paralysis is connected to the standard rapid eye movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle. The REM stage of sleep involves dreaming and paralysed limbs, which helps prevent acting out dreams. Breathing also becomes more irregular and shallow. However, these symptoms can also occur outside of REM - namely during an episode of sleep paralysis. You may find it difficult to take deep breaths, as if your chest is being crushed or restricted. Some people can also open their eyes but others find they can’t.
The reason why sleep paralysis episodes feel terrifying and quite disturbing is because you will suddenly become conscious and alert but realise that you are, in fact, unable to move a muscle or speak for a few seconds or up to a few minutes.
Even if you consciously know that you’re undergoing a sleep paralysis - you can’t wake your body up. While experiencing sleep paralysis, you might hallucinate vivid waking dreams (or nightmares), which can generally result in extreme, intense high levels of anxiety that make it difficult to get to sleep even when tired. It is often associated with other disorders that cause negative sleep experience, including night terrors.
Jessica, 21, has experienced sleep paralysis since her mid-teens and still struggles with it regularly. She said, “It has happened probably bimonthly or so. I have always been a very lucid dreamer so I usually feel in control. My sleep paralysis almost always comes when I am extremely anxious, whether it be exams, deadlines or just general anxiety. When my anxiety is worse my sleep paralysis is more frequent. Although I am stressed by my sleep paralysis I often do not try to prevent it. The only thing that has helped has been meditation before bed, turning off my mind to prevent it from being so active whilst I sleep. I often see people; normally large, male shaped figures, like shadows."
Chloe, 22, has also experienced sleep paralysis occasionally and said, “I had read a blog post about it, so I wasn’t completely unaware of what was happening the first time. My first experience was when I was on Erasmus in Prague, and I saw someone but couldn’t move, breathe or scream. The second time I experienced it I understood a lot more and after a few experiences I was able to calm myself down when I was in that state, because I knew what it was. I find I’m able to be aware that it’s ‘only sleep paralysis’ now, so I’m able to relax, and calm myself.”
It's easy to understand why sleep paralysis can be so unnerving. But the prospect of it doesn’t have to be scary or enigmatic, and being informed can help you feel reassured if you experience an episode in the future. After all, sleep paralysis can happen just once and never again but, for a few people, it may be regular. Awareness is key, and knowing what is happening to your body during sleep paralysis can be really helpful for coping. If you experience it, try to remind yourself that although it may be frightening, it cannot harm you.