- Sleep paralysis is a terrifying and poorly understood phenomenon. Sufferers find themselves suddenly partially awake with their eyes open but unable to move as an evil and malevolent entity creeps toward their bed.
- Sleep paralysis isn’t the same as having a nightmare–sufferers are aware of their surroundings, sleeping position, and the lighting of the room, and their sense of time isn’t distorted. They may also feel a sense of doom, pressure in their chest, or hear voices.
- The cause of sleep paralysis isn’t known, but factors that may contribute include being a student, suffering from a panic disorder, sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, or a family history of sleep paralysis.
- Ways of coping or reducing the chances of sleep paralysis include avoiding caffeine or alcohol use before bed, managing stress with help from a therapist, and meditating or winding down with tv or a book.
In college, I remember sitting at the dining room table in a shared apartment, having a small breakfast and coffee before class. One of my roommates came downstairs looking pale, his hair still wet from the shower. He slid onto a chair next to me, and, after pouring a bowl of cereal for himself, sat there munching as though he was trying to quietly munch his raisin bran at the back of a funeral service.
Naturally, I asked him what was wrong. He glanced at me and mentioned that he’d had a nightmare—caused by sleep paralysis. He explained a bit further and told me that since the age of 7, he’d often fall asleep soundly until about 4 am when his eyes would open. However, the rest of his body was unable to move.
And as he would struggle in the darkness, trying to work his arms and legs under the covers, the same ghoulish figure with a gaping, quivering mouth, unnaturally large eyes, and a foul presence would creep slowly onto his bed. It would try to crane its elongated neck so that he would have to look into its eyes—but he always managed to wake up before that ever happened.
Once he was able to move, poof! It would vanish.
Is Sleep Paralysis the Same As Having a Nightmare?
Needless to say, the rest of my breakfast went untouched. That roommate moved out a few weeks later. Shortly after he left, I started using his room as an artistic space. And then I began experiencing sleep paralysis myself for the first time. Each experience was stranger than the rest, but within a few months, it stopped—and I’ve never had sleep paralysis occur since.
But what is sleep paralysis? Experts separate sleep paralysis from nightmares due to the sufferer’s state of consciousness—people aren’t actually completely asleep during the experience. Sleep paralysis victims are:
- Acutely aware of their surroundings. This means their perception of the room’s lighting, their sleeping position, and their sense of time isn’t usually distorted.
- Aware that they are somehow unable to move. This often results in extreme fear, as their eyes scan the room, wondering what’s going on outside their field of vision.
- Able to sense an evil presence or a sense of doom that’s keen on taking advantage of their vulnerable state.
- Often plagued by pressure in their chest which makes it hard to breathe. This is usually accompanied by seeing someone (or something) sitting atop them.
- Able to hear whispers, voices, or bodily sensations from demonic, otherworldly, or shadowy entities that may talk or touch them.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Research suggests that there are many contributing factors that can make someone more likely to experience sleep paralysis. For unknown reasons, those in their 20s and 30s are more susceptible to sleep paralysis, but additional factors include:
- Being a student or student-athlete
- Suffering from a panic disorder
- Suffering from sleep deprivation
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- A history of depression or anxiety
- A family history of sleep paralysis
These are only likely factors. What causes sleep paralysis is still poorly understood, and despite how unsettlingly similar most people’s experiences are, sleep paralysis is a subjective, dream-like state.
How to Stop Sleep Paralysis
For myself, I was lucky enough to have my sleep paralysis experiences cease without changing anything. But for others (like the aforementioned roommate), the night terrors can last for years. For some, this can seriously jack up their sleep schedule. And for others, getting such a vivid, horror-movie-like experience is pretty unpleasant.
If you’re looking to know how to stop sleep paralysis, there’s no specific cure, and it’s really not well-understood. But there are things in your daily life (especially in regards to your nighttime routine) that you can amend to try and get the Freddy Krueger vibes to stop. Some helpful recommendations include:
- Avoiding caffeine, or alcoholic beverages before bed. Both of these substances affect your sleep quality negatively and can interrupt your REM sleep. This can leave you partially conscious and more susceptible to sleep paralysis.
- Managing your daily stress with the help of a therapist or counselor. A therapist or counselor can help you unpack and understand your sleep paralysis experiences. And with their expert assistance, you could be better equipped to manage the stress that might be contributing.
- Meditating before bed—or winding down with your favorite tv show or novel. These activities are shown to boost the quality of sleep in many people and are a good way to put yourself into a positive headspace before climbing into bed.
- Remembering that if you have another episode, it isn’t real. Though the figures seen in sleep paralysis experiences are often terrifying, malevolent entities that seem keen on eating your soul, they disappear once you’re able to move. The unexplainable can be scary, but dwelling on the experience might be distracting you from focusing on more important things in your life.
For myself, sleep paralysis was a strangely lucid experience that left me more than a little confused, and very happy when it stopped. For others, sleep paralysis can be a routine, uncomfortable obstacle that prevents them from getting the rest that they need, and the peace of mind that they want. For now, the best way to prevent it from happening is to start prepping during the day; in order to ward off what goes bump in the night.