Have you ever woken up and felt stuck in your bed, unable to move your limbs? There seemed to be someone in the room, watching you, advancing toward you menacingly, sometimes even drawing the sheets away. You couldn’t breathe! Someone was sitting on your chest! And though you wanted to scream, you couldn’t even whisper. You just lay there, terrified, waiting for the unimaginable to happen. Then you were suddenly released or you woke up or even drifted back to sleep.
No, this is not a visit from malevolent spirits or evil aliens. The medical term for this phenomenon is sleep paralysis.
If you are temporarily unable to move, speak, or react during sleep onset or upon waking up, you are undergoing sleep paralysis. You may even have visual or auditory hallucinations.
Sleep paralysis is medically defined as a temporary inability to move, speak, or react during waking up or falling asleep despite being in a state of consciousness. It is a sleep disorder that falls under the category of parasomnia or unusual behavior during sleep. Based on the time when it occurs, it can be categorized as:
Two Types of Sleep Paralysis
When we fall asleep, our minds and bodies are both super relaxed and slowly become less aware of their environment.
Type 1: Hypnagogic Phase
When we experience the Hypnagogic phase, the paralysis which happens before we fall asleep, our minds are consciously aware of what’s going on, however, our bodies are still in an unconscious state of relaxation. So, no matter what the person does or is consciously awake for, they will be unable to move their body, which will obviously make them panic.
Type 2: Hypnopompic
When experiencing the Hypnopompic phase, the paralysis which happens after the person wakes up from ‘rapid-eye-movement’ or REM sleep. During REM sleep, the person is in deep sleep and dreaming, for which the brain paralyzes the muscles so that we don’t act on our dreams, almost like tying our body up subconsciously. So when someone experiences hypnopompic sleep paralysis, a part of their brain wakes up, but the part which is responsible for REM sleep and the muscle’s paralysis is still asleep. So, this is another state of sleep paralysis experienced where you are conscious, may possibly see your dreams unravel in front of you, but won’t have any conscious control over your own movements. It is a terrifying experience if you are having a nightmare and can’t move a muscle to dodge what’s in front of you.
Sleep Paralysis Risk Factors
Obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where the throat muscles relax during sleep and obstruct airflow, is also a risk factor.
Narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and nighttime leg cramps are all risk factors for sleep paralysis.
Disrupted Sleep-Wake Cycle
Sleeping and waking up follows a 24-hour pattern, the circadian rhythm. When this pattern is disrupted, whether because of alcohol and drug abuse, shift work, inconsistent sleep timings, or lack of sleep, the chances of sleep paralysis go up.
If either of your parents suffers from sleep paralysis, there’s a 50% chance you will too.
Sleep paralysis also runs in the family. A study with siblings and identical and fraternal twins found that genes could be held responsible for 53% of the occurrences of sleep paralysis. Identical twins have similar risks of experiencing the condition. And in some cases, sleep paralysis can occur even when the faulty gene is passed on from only one parent.
If you have experienced traumatic incidents and you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, you are more likely to experience sleep paralysis.
If you have a history of panic disorder, anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and a negative self-image, you are likely to hallucinate about an ominous presence – that of an intruder – during sleep paralysis. These are often also effects of sleep paralysis itself and the process could be cyclical.
About 60% sleep paralysis episodes occur when one is sleeping on one’s back.
Sleep Paralysis Hallucinations
There are usually 3 kinds of visual hallucinations, also called hypnagogic hallucinations, that accompany sleep paralysis.
You feel that there is a threatening presence in the room. Some people even report seeing shapes, animals, or tall, dark, formless bodies.
You feel that someone is sitting on your chest and suffocating you.
Unusual Bodily Experience Or Out-Of-Body-Experience
Some people have reported that they have been able to leave their bodies and float in the air or fly about.
How To Stop Sleep Paralysis
Focus on breathing steadily. Then focus on moving a toe or a finger. Remember that this is just a minor glitch in the body. It will pass.
- Once you are inside an episode of sleep paralysis, focus on your breathing and try to control it. This will ease off the pressure on the chest.
- Try making very small movements like moving a finger or wiggling a toe.
- Also, focus on a positive feeling or emotion or a loved person to allay the fear and bring your breathing and heart rate back to normal.
- If you have experienced sleep paralysis before, it will be easier for you to remain relaxed and calm. You’d also know that there is nothing paranormal about this and that this will soon be over.
- Getting an adequate amount of sleep
- Making sure you get good quality sleep by doing something to de-stress before going to bed
- Do not deprive yourself of sleep, as a missed day of good sleep is said to be a trigger
- Reduce caffeine, alcohol and drug consumption
- Restrict smoking
- Switch off or keep electronic devices away from you at least half an hour before sleeping
- Drinking some warm turmeric and honey milk or warm lemon water, before going to sleep, as some options for relaxing and sleep-inducing beverages
In case you do experience sleep paralysis, remember to just stay calm, focus on your breathing, lie back down, relax, and remember that it will pass.