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Sleep Paralysis: What is it, what causes it, what should I do to prevent it and more...

Updated on October 22, 2012
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781)
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781)

My first experience with sleep paralysis

It was late at night-maybe around 1 or 2 am. I was studying for my upcoming O level exams. Suddenly I started having this eerie feeling. I felt like there was someone in the room watching me closely. I looked around and there was no one. I told myself “calm down, you’re under a lot of stress. Just continue studying”. So I continued to study but really I couldn’t concentrate anymore. I was 16 back then and even though I didn’t believe in ghosts, I never really denied their existence! I was more like, hey if they exist then they exist and if they don’t then they don’t, as long as they don’t bother me!

So since I couldn't study anymore I went to the bed and tried to sleep. But I couldn’t close my eyes. This strange feeling was growing even more terrifying now! I felt like something or someone is there in my room and if I closed my eyes then it’d do something to me! I looked around and again there was nothing. The lights were on as I was too scared to switch them off. My brain was fully active but my body was tired. I didn’t want to sleep that night but eventually I fell asleep as I was physically exhausted.

Then all of a sudden I woke up and I was overwhelmed by this feeling of fear that was working within me! I felt some sort of heaviness in my chest. I tried to get up but I couldn’t. I tried to shout and call my mom but I couldn't I couldn't move my limbs at all no matter how hard I tried. I could only move my eyes and see around. Luckily for me I didn't see any ghost or any demonic figure..

I can’t explain in words how terrifying it was. I don’t know how long I was in that state. But eventually I realized I could move my legs. I got up and that was it. I couldn’t sleep anymore that night.

Only at 7 in the morning was I finally able to go to sleep. When I woke up I knew I needed some answers. I just couldn’t let it go saying that, "oh it's ok, some ghost sat on me last night and didn’t let me sleep!"

Here is what I found out. The phenomenon that I experienced is called sleep paralysis and there are basically two explanations for it- a scientific one and not so scientific one!

Sleep paralysis- The scientific explanation:

Scientists say that sleep paralysis can happen when a person is about to fall asleep or when a person is about to wake up. Before falling asleep or before waking up a person goes through a transitional period. It is this transitional period where sleep paralysis occurs.

What happens before falling asleep?

In this transitional period the body and the mind calms down and falls asleep. When a person is asleep he loses voluntary control over his muscles. So he is unable to move his limbs voluntarily. This is a normal physiological phenomenon and is important because it prevent us from acting out our dreams. The person is also unable to voluntarily regulate his breathing or speak.

So in this transitional period, sometimes the body falls asleep quicker than the mind so that the mind (consciousness) is awake but the body is asleep. The person will all of a sudden realize that he is unable to move his body or speak.

What happens before waking up?

To understand this period, we need to understand what happens when we sleep. Sleep is basically divided into two types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM or non-REM) sleep.

NREM sleep takes up about 75% of total sleep and REM sleep takes up the rest. Sleep paralysis is associated with the REM sleep. During sleep, the body alternates between NREM and REM sleep. About 80 minutes of NREM sleep starts a night of sleep, about 10 minutes of REM sleep follows, and this 90 minute cycle is repeated about 3 to 6 times during the night. During the REM sleep, we dream and the voluntary control over our muscles is lost so that we cannot act out our dreams. Now if we wake up before the REM sleep is finished we will find that we are unable to move or speak and experience sleep paralysis

Why is it that people experience a presence of evil during sleep paralysis?

This happens because when a person all of a sudden wakes up and realizes that he is unable to move his body or speak and if he does not know why this is happening then his brain goes into a state of hyper vigilance. This hyper vigilant state is activated because the person feels extremely helpless and vulnerable to attack. In this state the brain becomes over-excited and cannot function properly. The mind naturally tries to protect the body and starts looking for signs of threat or harm to the body. But as it is unable to function properly it starts to interpret every external or internal stimulus as a threat. This creates the feeling of extreme terror and presence of evil.

Why is it that I can move my eyes during sleep paralysis but I can’t move my other body parts?

During sleep the voluntary control over our muscles is lost. This happens as a protective function so that we can’t act out our dreams. But yet then we are voluntarily able to control our eye movements. This is because the mechanism by which we control our skeletal muscles is different from the mechanism by which we control our eye movements. The part of the nervous system dedicated to controlling the skeletal muscles is switched off during sleep but the part that controls eye movements remains active. This is why we are able to control our eye movements during sleep paralysis.

Why do I feel I can't breathe during sleep paralysis?

During sleeping our breathing becomes slow and shallow and is beyond our voluntary control. So when a person wakes up all of sudden and finds himself in sleep paralysis, he starts to panic and tries to breathe in more. But he is unable to do that because the respiratory muscles are not under his voluntary control. So he starts to panic even more and feels a sense of suffocation.

Sleep paralysis- The demonic explanation

Sleep paralysis is not a new subject and has been there for ages. Some cultures say its because of a ghost or demon. Some people say it’s because of aliens. Whatever is the explanation there is no scientific evidence for it. The term nightmare actually came from the name of a demon called mare who was believed to cause sleep paralysis.

Is sleep paralysis a serious condition?

No it is not. But do visit a doctor if you feel:

  1. You’re unable to get enough sleep at night because of sleep paralysis
  2. You’re extremely tired during the day because of sleep paralysis
  3. You’re worrying a lot about sleep paralysis

How often does sleep paralysis occur?

There is no general rule to how often sleep paralysis happens. In some people it happens only once. In others, it may happen every night.

Who are more susceptible to suffer from sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can happen to anyone of any age. It is said 4 out of ten people suffer from sleep paralysis. Some possible risk factors of sleep paralysis are:

  • Stressful conditions like exams, work stress.
  • Lack of sleep
  • Irregular sleeping schedule
  • Sleeping in supine position (face upwards)
  • Conditions like narcolepsy
  • Certain medications
  • Drug abuse

What should I do during sleep paralysis?

  1. Do not be afraid. Try to calm yourself down. Keep on telling yourself that this is normal and no one is going to harm you.
  2. Do not struggle to move your limbs. Just relax and let it go. Struggling to move is actually going to make you panic more and make the whole experience more terrifying.
  3. Just relax and let yourself go back to sleep.

What can I do to prevent sleep paralysis?

  • Make a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning
  • Reduce stress in your life. Controlling stress will help you in other aspects of your life as well. Exercise regularly and try meditating.
  • Instead of sleeping on the back, try out a new sleeping position. For me the best position is sleeping on the right side.
  • See your doctor if sleep paralysis is affecting your performance during the day.


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    • profile image

      Ishti 5 years ago

      Thank You.:)

    • mbergo profile image

      mbergo 5 years ago from Porto Alegre, Brazil

      Loved the artwork. It was what made me start reading the article.

      Didn't know this condition existed and you explained it very well. Fascinating!