Cuddled up in your bed as you slowly drift into a deep sleep, an unsettling feeling suddenly wakes you up. It’s the middle of the night and you see something standing in the dark corner of your room. “Has someone broken in?” — You mutter in your mind while scared to death. And that’s when the shadowy figure slowly starts making its way towards you. “Get up and run!” — Your mind screams. But, you suddenly realize you can’t. Mustering all your strength, you try hard to move, but your whole body is paralyzed. Chilled to the bone, you try to scream— but nothing comes out. Your heart pounds and your thoughts swirl through your mind as you silently squeal inside. But then, all of a sudden, the frightening figure vanishes into thin air and you bolt up and sit upright in a panic.
Sounds like something out of a horror or sci-fi flick? No, it’s not. Indeed, it’s a very real experience that many of us go through and it’s called sleep paralysis. Clearly, an episode of sleep paralysis can be scary. However, it’s pretty normal to have such an experience. But then, what about the menacing presence in the room? Well, it’s not real. We swear.
So, What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
According to Harvard Health, two out of five Americans experience sleep paralysis. Some feel a crushing pressure on their chest or a choking feeling, while others hallucinate that a demonic figure hovering in the corner. But why or how it happens? Well, it’s not clear yet. But researchers believe that it can occur either when you are about to wake up (hypnopompic) or falling asleep (hypnagogic). In the hypnagogic sleep stage, your body enters into a relaxing mode when the brain typically turns off signals to the rest of your body. So, if you are jolted awake in the middle of this, you may find yourself paralyzed. During hypnopompic paralysis, however, you wake up before your body does, and hence, you feel as if your body is frozen.
In scientific terms, when we sleep, our body shifts between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). During NREM, our body enters into the most relaxed phase, and then it switches to REM. You might be dreaming at this phase but as your muscles are relaxed, you don’t act out your dreams. So, if you suddenly become aware before REM has finished, you find yourself at a standstill. But why do we see those demonic figures? This is because, in such a state of paralysis, our dream-state brain makes us hallucinate. So, what we see is the combination of the actual surroundings and a nightmare, which is projected onto the real world.
What Can You Do About These Experiences?
Now that you know that the sleep demons aren’t real and the sleep paralysis episodes won’t last more than a minute, you can be a little at ease. Here are a few steps that you can take to further reduce the likelihood of these frightening episodes.
- Stick To a Healthy Sleep Schedule
Sleep-deprived people are more likely to experience sleep paralysis. And hence, try to have 6 to 8 hours of peaceful sleep each night. Don’t go to sleep on a full stomach. Also, stay away from caffeine and alcohol before bedtime as these may interfere with your normal sleep cycle. To calm your nerves and get rid of stress, you can also engage in some relaxing activity just before hitting the bed.
- Avoid Sleeping On Your Back
When you sleep on your back, you’re more likely to be awoken from snoring or sleep apnea. So, try to sleep in any other position that makes you comfortable. But, if you often end up on your back even though you sleep in another position, keep pillows on both sides. This will stop you from rolling over all the way.
- Look For Any Underlying Conditions
Stress, anxiety, depression— such mental health issues often contribute to frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, So, treating the underlying cause can help you put a stop to these terrifying occurrences. Sometimes, the side effects of certain medications can also cause sleep issues. So, if you notice an occurrence or increased frequency of such episodes after starting a new drug, talk to your doctor.
- Do Regular Exercise
Exercise can go a long way when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety. So, include exercise into your daily routine and practice meditation, and yoga to relax your mind and improve your sleep.
There’s no denying that sleep paralysis is a horrifying experience. But, the truth is— it is surprisingly common and there is nothing to be worried about. If you are wondering, has anyone died from this spooky sleep disorder, or can sleep paralysis hurt you? The answer is —NO. In fact, no clinical deaths have been reported till date due to sleep paralysis.
So, next time, when you feel your body and brain are temporarily out of sync, don’t panic. Wiggling your fingers and toes can be a good place to start to “break the spell” of sleep paralysis and bring your body back into consciousness. It sure feels like a lifetime to go through this but it will be over in few seconds. So, just trick yourself by saying— “It’s not real, everything is going to be okay,” and start counting numbers. But, if you still encounter frequent episodes of sleep paralysis and if you feel that it’s adversely affecting your daily life, make sure to check with your doctor. Remember, sleep is supposed to be a sweet, relaxing experience, so follow the above steps and keep this spooky sleeping disorder at bay. Sleep well!