Has this ever happened to you?
You come out of a deep sleep. Something’s wrong. You can see and hear, but you can’t move! No matter how hard you try, you can’t budge. It’s like you’re paralyzed.
And it gets worse.
You get the impression that there is someone in the room with you. You can’t see or hear him, but somehow you know he (it?) is there. He’s not nice. He means you harm. You instinctively try to draw a deep breath, but you can’t. It feels like there’s some sort of weight on your chest, like you can’t breathe. You start to panic. Will this ever stop?
As suddenly as it began, it’s over. You can move. You turn on a light and survey your bedroom. You see nothing out of the ordinary, nothing out of place. You take a few minutes to calm down and then try to get some sleep…
If something like this has happened to you, you probably experienced Sleep Paralysis.
A lot of people experience sleep paralysis. If you experience it, it does not automatically mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ with you.
Your body couldn’t move because your body often can’t move when you’re asleep. In REM sleep, for example, many of your voluntary muscles are atonal (the muscles have no tone). Sleep researchers think that REM atonia happens so that people don’t act out their dreams. In essence, sleep paralysis occurs when your mind and your body don’t wake up at the same time.
Sleep paralysis is “normally harmless,” but that doesn’t mean it’s the greatest experience in the world. In fact, many people who experience sleep paralysis report being terrified. My research on sleep paralysis, conducted with Al Cheyne and Steve Rueffer, repeatedly found that many sleep paralysis experiencers were deeply disturbed and scared by what they felt and saw.
The Sensed Presence
The sensed presence certainly doesn’t make the experience any more enjoyable. A lot of people who experience sleep paralysis feel as if some evil person or entity is in the room. When I researched sleep paralysis with Al Cheyne and Steve Rueffer, we concluded that people sensed a presence because of a sort of short circuit in the brain. It looks like the part of your brain that ‘lights up’ when a threat is detected becomes active even though no threat is detected. So, you have the feeling that someone/something means you harm when, in fact, nothing is there at all.
Being unable to breathe is probably tied to the paralysis. You have anti-gravity muscles that help you breathe. When you’re in REM, your anti-gravity muscles are sluggish. You really can breathe, of course. It just feels like you can’t. Believing that you can’t breathe only adds to the terror.
Some people hallucinate during sleep paralysis. They see all sorts of strange things. The hallucinations are happening because part of your brain is still in a dream state. Instead of seeing those weird and wacky images in your dreams, you’re seeing them in the room with you.
If you’ve experienced sleep paralysis, you might be worried. Please don’t worry. Remember that it is common and, as far as anyone knows, a sleep paralysis experience does not mean that there is anything medically or psychologically wrong with you.
How to Stop/Avoid Sleep Paralysis
That’s all well and good, of course, but how can you avoid and/or stop sleep paralysis experiences? There are a few things you can do:
- Avoid irregular sleep patterns and get plenty of sleep. People who are sleep deprived or who have unusual sleep patterns (like shift-workers) can have disturbed REM sleep. Because sleep paralysis is a ‘malfunction’ of REM, disturbed REM sleep probably makes people vulnerable to sleep paralysis.
- Don’t sleep on your back. Data that Al Cheyne, Steve Rueffer, and I collected indicate that people who sleep on their back experience sleep paralysis more often. Of course, maybe people who sleep on their back are the kind of people who experience sleep paralysis. But, might as well give it a shot.
- I’ve also seen it suggested that you should try to move your facial muscles.
- Someone else touching you might bring you out of it, but this has yet to be confirmed.
The number one thing to remember is that there is nothing truly wrong. If you find yourself experiencing sleep paralysis, you might try relaxing and taking in the experience. Remind yourself that sleep paralysis is nothing more than a ‘waking dream.’ You’ll be truly awake soon enough.
Ian Newby-Clark is Professor of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He studies habits and methods for changing them. You can read more about his findings at his blog, My Bad Habits.