by Zeanne M
You wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat. You can feel an evil presence circling around the room, and your fear is starting to eat you up inside. However, you’re strapped down to the bed, not able to move or make a sound.
What’s going on? Well, this is a small description of what nighttime is like for people who’ve experienced sleep paralysis.
What’s going on?
There are 4 stages of sleep. The first 3 are stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM), and the last one is a stage of rapid eye movement (REM). During the 4th stage, the body experiences atonia, or the loss of muscle control. This is perfectly normal, as the 4th stage is also when vivid dreaming takes place. As a result, atonia is needed to control the body and to make sure no there’s no random body movement (this is because the body might move as if it was actually in the dream, which could result in injury). When the person wakes up, atonia ends, so they’re never actually aware of this inability to move.
Sleep paralysis takes place in between the stages of NREM and REM. This results in the body experiencing both atonia and the vivid imagery of dreams, all while still being partly awake. These episodes can last from a few seconds to multiple minutes. Episodes can either end from another person’s touch/voice, or the extreme effort to move, which can sometimes break your atonia.
Am I just hallucinating?
The simple answer is, yes, you are. Thankfully, the visuals that one experiences during sleep paralysis aren’t real. They’re actually hypnagogic hallucinations, which are visual, auditory, or even tactile perceptions. These hallucinations can only occur between stages 1-3 and 4 of sleep, which matches with sleep paralysis timings. Examples of these hallucinations are feeling your “fight or flight” response kick in, or sensations of suffocation, spinning, or falling.
Who experiences it?
A study conducted that 7.6% of the general population, 28.3% of students, and 31.9% of psychiatric patients have experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis. Episodes are usually irregular and infrequent in people who don’t suffer from any panic/sleep disorder. There are other causes as well. People who experience insomnia are also more susceptible to sleep paralysis (which definitely explains why students have such a high percentage compared to the general population…). Along with this, people who experience lots of jet lag, irregular sleeping schedules, or PTSD/anxiety experience it more frequently as well. Sleep paralysis is also genetic, and can be passed down through generations.
Fortunately, although it may be scary, sleep paralysis isn’t actually as harmful as it sounds. Most of the fear comes from the hallucinations, and these can be cured easily. The main way to cure sleep paralysis is to get a regular 6-8 hours of sleep per day! Other ways include:
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- Getting regular exercise, but not in the 4 hours before bed
- If you do get sleep paralysis regularly, try not to sleep on your back
- Don’t smoke or drink alcohol/caffeinated drinks before bed
Personally, I’ve never experienced sleep paralysis (nor do I want to). It does sound scary, and it was surprising to know that there isn’t any medication to cure the hallucinations. I wonder why this is? Another question I have is, are all sleep paralysis hallucinations scary? What if there were positive ones (similar to lucid dreaming), that made you feel like you were in another reality? I think that if that existed, it would definitely change everyone’s perspective on something as worrisome as sleep paralysis.