I have never heard of the medical term sleep paralysis though I have had episodes of it on and off. Each time it happened, I thought I was possessed by a spirit or some supernatural creature. I have been experiencing sleep paralysis since I was a teenager.
When I was on a holiday in Beijing with my parents circa 1997, we stayed in a hotel where all the rooms had 2 floors. My parents occupied the ground floor and I took the floor upstairs and slept alone. And it happened. Just before dawn, I felt someone tugging my legs. I felt paralyzed and could not wake up nor open my eyes though I was aware of the present surroundings. I was overcome with tremendous fear and tried to break free from the ‘spirit / ghost’. That must be the feeling of being in hell I thought. I prayed fervently and tried to shout but nothing came out of my mouth. After a long struggle with the ‘evil demons’, I finally won and woke up. Thankfully we only stayed in that hotel for a night before we traveled to Chengde the next day. I was so convinced that the hotel was haunted and an evil spirit had ‘stepped into my body’ like what the Chinese call it. The feeling I had each time I woke up from being ‘possessed’ was one of extreme lethargy, as if I had fought hard to win the battle against the evil.
I only found out that what I had been going through is a phenomenon called sleep paralysis. I had read about Kate Beckinsale’s sleep paralysis terror recently from the newspapers.
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which an individual, either during falling asleep or awakening, briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body). These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing. Another common hallucination type involves intruders (human or supernatural) entering one’s room or lurking outside one’s window, accompanied by a feeling of dread.
Symptoms of sleep paralysis
The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being completely aware of your surroundings but temporarily being unable to move or talk.
This usually occurs as you’re waking up, but can happen when falling asleep.
During an episode of sleep paralysis you may:
- find it difficult to take deep breaths, as if your chest is being crushed or restricted
- be able to move your eyes – some people can also open their eyes but others find they can’t
- have a sensation that there’s someone or something in the room with you (hallucination) – many people feel this presence wishes to harm them
- feel very frightened
The length of an episode can vary from a few seconds to several minutes.
You’ll be able to move and speak as normal afterwards, although you may feel unsettled and anxious about going to sleep again.
Causes of sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis happens when parts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occur while you’re awake.
REM is a stage of sleep when the brain is very active and dreams often occur. The body is unable to move, apart from the eyes and muscles used in breathing, possibly to stop you acting out your dreams and hurting yourself.
It’s not clear why REM sleep can sometimes occur while you’re awake, but it has been associated with:
- not getting enough sleep (sleep deprivation or insomnia)
- irregular sleeping patterns – for example, because of shift work or jet lag
- narcolepsy – a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times
- a family history of sleep paralysis
- sleeping on your back
In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off or very occasional event that occurs in someone who is otherwise healthy.
Treatments for sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis often gets better over time, but improving your sleeping habits and sleeping environment may help.
It can help to:
- get a good night’s sleep – most adults need six to eight hours of good quality sleep a night
- go to bed at roughly the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning
- create a sleeping environment that’s comfortable, quiet, dark and not too hot or cold
- avoid eating big meals, smoking, or drinking alcohol or caffeine shortly before going to bed
- get regular exercise (but not within four hours of going to bed)