If you don’t know what is sleep paralysis, then let’s get started because it’s something you should know about.
Sometimes bad dreams scare the shit out of us but we have learnt to cope up with it because it’s really not at all a very rare thing. Nightmares keep coming and is really not a big deal. But what is utterly terrifying is that though sometimes our brain wakes up but still our body cannot move. I bet it might have happened with you as well once or quiet a few times. And this terrifying phenomena is called Sleep Paralysis.
Sleep Paralysis is only scary once you notice it !
Since your dreams may involve you moving and walking around, your brain shuts down communication to your muscles during REM, or dreaming, sleep so you don’t actually move and walk around when you should be in bed. In that sense, paralysis during sleep is totally normal.
So when comes the scary part ?
The scary kinda sleep paralysis occurs when you are enough awake to be aware about your surroundings, but your body is still paralysed. It can happen when you are about to fall asleep or when you are just waking up. Although sleep paralysis is scary and can happen at night, that doesn’t mean it has any relation with nightmares. The two are opposites, in a sense: in a night terror, you are asleep but moving around. In sleep paralysis, you are awake but cannot move.
Hallucinations add more fear
As if sleep paralysis were not scary enough, many people tend to hallucinate during a sleep paralysis episode. That hallucination, sometimes can be a specific image which you can see or other times it is a vague feeling that someone or something is present in the room with you.
A report in the journal Consciousness and Cognition identifies three common types of hallucinations :
- An intruder that is in the room with you
- A crushing feeling on your chest or back
- A feeling of flying or levitating.
My most vivid memory of sleep paralysis falls into the third category. I had finally fallen asleep, after pulling an all-nighter the night before, and in my dream I was at a party in a strange house. I became able to fly, hovering a few feet above the ground. It was fun, until I realised I was flying faster and faster. I woke up—sort of—but still felt like I was flying and could not stop. Some people who experience the floating type of sleep paralysis find it enjoyable, according to that same report in Consciousness and Cognition, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of sheer terror. After seconds or minutes—I don’t know, but it felt like an eternity—I was finally able to move and fully wake up.
People who experience the lurking or crushing kind of hallucinations have described them as demons, dark clouds, burglars, and other unwelcome creatures.
A Dutch woman in the 1600s described her visitors as a devil, a dog, and a thief. In a 2013 study in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, some Danish participants described being visited by a ghost; their counterparts in Egypt put the hallucination in terms of a jinn, a spirit from Islamic mythology. In a group of Cambodian refugees who lived through the Pol Pot dictatorship, the intruders were sometimes attackers or relatives they recognised from their past.
In the study of Danish and Egyptian participants, people in both countries who considered themselves religious were more likely to interpret the hallucinations as something supernatural. Not surprisingly, those who thought they were being visited by something supernatural were more likely to report fear as part of the experience.
So how can one deal with sleep paralysis without fearing ?
The best weapon that you have against sleep paralysis is understanding the situation and try to be relaxed.
Understanding sleep paralysis just as a glitch in the brain rather than fearing and confusing it with a demon or ghost seems to help take the fear away. However terrifying the intruder or demon seems to be at the moment, nobody is actually there in your bedroom trying to threat you.
Scientists are still debating why sleep paralysis happens, but we know that a few things make it more likely. For example, episodes are more common if your sleep is disrupted—like mine was after an all-nighter. People are also more likely to have sleep paralysis if they also have post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, anxiety, or depression. Frequent sleep paralysis is also one of the symptoms of narcolepsy. The condition seems to run in families, and it’s more common in students than in the general population, maybe because of stress or sleep deprivation. While you can’t change your genetics or biology, you may be able to reduce your chances of having a paralysis episode if you don’t sleep on your back and if you keep a healthy sleep schedule.
When it comes to stopping sleep paralysis in the moment, a study in Behavioral Sleep Medicine gives a few suggestions which are based on a survey including people who experience sleep paralysis. People in the survey were asked how hey tried to stop it and whether they felt they were successful.
Don’t take the techniques too seriously because sleep paralysis episode eventually stops so we don’t know whether these techniques were responsible. The most successful tactics seemed to be :
- Trying to move an arm or a leg
- Trying to move another body part, such as the mouth
- Trying to relax with positive thoughts, prayer, or breathing exercises
Baland Jalal, who led the study, favours a four-step meditation technique to relieve the fear and hopefully stop the paralysis :
- Remind yourself that the hallucination is just a dream.
- Distance yourself from the fear by telling yourself that this experience is “common, benign, and temporary” and so there is no reason to be afraid.
- Focus on something other than the hallucination, like a happy memory.
- Try to relax your muscles, rather than attempting to move.
This technique might work, but again, it hasn’t been tested in a large group of patients. Since meditation is good for you anyway, it doesn’t seem like it could hurt.