What It Feels Like To Experience 'Sleep Paralysis'

Wide awake, yet unable to move or speak—this is the terrifying phenomenon of 'sleep paralysis.'

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 01, 2024

Imagine waking up from a peaceful night's sleep, only to find yourself unable to move or speak. It's a terrifying experience, feeling trapped within your own body. For many, however, this experience is not simply a case of being left paralyzed; it's a moment of sheer terror amplified by the inability to move or call for help, often accompanied by strange and horrifying hallucinations.

This phenomenon—known as "sleep paralysis"—is not just perplexing; it can be deeply unsettling. Sleep paralysis can destroy one's relationship with sleep, especially when they don't understand what's happening to them. However, research offers insights into this condition, revealing simple ways to stay calm and regain control during these frightening episodes.

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

According to research from Sleep Medicine Reviews, sleep paralysis is characterized by a discrete period of time in which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited—yet eye and respiratory movements remain unaffected, and senses remain clear. However, one of the most well-known features of sleep paralysis is the vivid hallucinations that often accompany the experience. These hallucinations can vary widely, ranging from seeing shadowy figures or demonic entities to experiencing intense sensations of fear or dread.

Interestingly, the authors explain how these hallucinations often reflect cultural beliefs and folklore. For example, in some cultures, sleep paralysis is interpreted as an encounter with malevolent spirits or witches, while in others, it's seen as a visitation from extraterrestrial beings. These culturally-specific interpretations can influence how individuals perceive and cope with their experiences of sleep paralysis.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

According to research from the journal of Neurotherapeutics, sleep paralysis—characterized as a dissociated state—suggests a disconnection between different aspects of consciousness or physiological processes. Through early research involving induced sleep paralysis, the findings indicate that episodes usually occur during the transition between REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and wakefulness.

Through polysomnography, a method for monitoring sleep activity, researchers have uncovered a typical sequence during sleep paralysis episodes. Initially, alpha brain-waves associated with wakefulness intrude into REM sleep, followed by an arousal response, which indicates a shift towards wakefulness. However, despite this awakening, the body remains in a state of "REM atonia"—characterized by the loss of muscle tone typical of REM sleep—leaving individuals paralyzed.

Notably, REM sleep is renowned as the prime time for vivid dreaming experiences. However, during episodes of sleep paralysis, the boundary between REM sleep and wakefulness becomes weakened. This weakening of the barrier between dream and waking realities can lead to an overlap between the two, where elements of our dream world seep into our waking consciousness.

As a result of this, individuals may confront strange hallucinations during sleep paralysis episodes. The panic and helplessness experienced during episodes—fueled by the inability to move or speak—can further darken these hallucinations, intensifying their eerie and disturbing nature.

Research from Consciousness and Cognition explains that some sufferers feel a weight pressing down on their chest, making it difficult to breathe. Others describe seeing "evil presences" lurking in the darkness, or experience the sensation of someone—or something—hovering menacingly above them. These hallucinations can feel so real that it's hard to distinguish them from reality, making the already frightening experience even more horrifying.

How To Combat Sleep Paralysis

Given the literal paralyzing nature of this condition, many individuals may believe that they are helpless in battling sleep paralysis. However, research from the journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment highlights that there are various ways in which individuals battling with sleep paralysis can reclaim agency over their sleep routines.

According to the authors, knowledge of sleep paralysis alone can be reassuring for those suffering with it. Many individuals experiencing sleep paralysis often feel ashamed of their condition, or unjustly attribute the experience to paranormal events or "going crazy." Albeit scary, reminding yourself of the fact that sleep paralysis is not abnormal and that you're not losing your mind can be reassuring.

Beyond educating yourself on the nature of sleep paralysis, there are small steps you can take to combat sleep paralysis, both during and outside of episodes:

  1. Focus on breathing. During episodes, try to focus on your breath. Slow, deep breathing can help reduce feelings of panic and anxiety.
  2. Mental reassurance. Remind yourself that sleep paralysis is a temporary and harmless condition. Knowing that it will pass can help alleviate fear.
  3. Attempt to move small muscles. While it may be difficult to move large muscles during sleep paralysis, try focusing on small movements like wiggling your fingers or toes. This can help signal the brain to fully awaken and end the episode.
  4. Visualize positive images. You may find it helpful to visualize calming or positive images during a sleep paralysis episode. This can distract from the sensations of paralysis and promote self-soothing.
  5. Practice sleep hygiene. Maintaining good sleep habits—such as sticking to a regular sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment and avoiding stimulants like caffeine close to bedtime—is shown to reduce the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis. Additionally, consider sleeping positions other than laying flat on your front or back, as the above studies find sleep paralysis to occur more often when sleeping in supine or prone positions.

The phenomenon of sleep paralysis exemplifies the complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and that, sometimes, they might work against one another. Our brains, flawed and sometimes cruel, can wreak havoc on us when we least expect it—even during moments that are meant to be peaceful. Although it can be hard to acknowledge in the moment, it is reassuring to remember that sleep paralysis is harmless, and that it does not last forever.

Experiencing repeated episodes of sleep paralysis could be a sign of chronic anxiety. Take the Anxiety Sensitivity Test to learn more.

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