Sleep paralysis sucks, and it’s not something I’d wish upon my worst enemy.
As I'm writing this article, I haven’t had an episode in over five years. And while it would be fascinating to experience again, I’m beyond grateful it’s no longer a regular part of my life.
This article should help clear up a lot of your confusion on what sleep paralysis is, its causes, how to stop sleep paralysis, and how to explain to others that you’re, in fact, not going crazy.
Sleep Paralysis, or SP for short, is a condition that occurs during the transition from the waking world to the dream world, or vice versa. It’s a feeling of being conscious and aware of your surroundings but unable to move.
When you sleep, your body relaxes, including your muscles – in part for restoration, but also so that you don’t act out your dreams in the middle of the night. When you experience SP, it’s like a glitch in The Matrix. Your mind partially wakes up but your body remains in its rested state. As one would expect, you freak the hell out when you realize you're "awake" but unable to move.
Some people hallucinate, others don’t. Those who have hallucinated reported seeing ghosts, dark shadowy figures, demons, or even imp-like creatures. Even though you’re conscious, your mind hasn’t fully woken up yet, which explains why these creatures from your nightmares come to life.
It would be neat if, instead of your worst fears, SP were accompanied by happy hallucinations, such as unicorns or leprechauns. But sadly, I don't think that's a thing (at least I've never been so lucky).
At any rate, it’s likely that SP is a culprit for many of the “evil” spirits, aliens, and demons that humanity claims have visited them during the middle of the night. At least, it’s the only legitimate scientific explanation for the phenomena.
Overall, sleep paralysis is a very common ailment with somewhere between 8% and 50% of the population having experienced it. I suspect this figure may be much closer to 50% than 8%, solely because most people aren’t reporting their cases – though I’m only guessing.
SP is usually not a sign of deeper, underlying mental or psychological issues (though it can be associated with them), but rather an indication that your body isn’t moving seamlessly through the stages of sleep as it normally should.
There are two variations of SP that you may experience – SP when falling asleep or SP when waking up. If you experience it while falling asleep, it’s called hypnagogic sleep paralysis. If when waking up, it’s referred to as hypnopompic.
Hypnagogic SP occurs if your brain remains or becomes aware while the rest of your body has relaxed into its sleeping state, whereas hypnopompic SP occurs when your mind “wakes up” before the rest of your body has had a chance to.
There isn’t one specific cause for sleep paralysis; however, since SP is an extension of your sleeping state, it’s believed that any factors that disrupt the normal REM sleep cycles can trigger SP episodes.
Below are common risk factors:
Disrupted sleep schedule – Any activities that cause sleep deprivation or interference with normal sleeping patterns lead to a higher chance of experiencing SP. For example, shift work, overtime, parents of newborn children, and staying up until 4 AM playing video games.
Substance abuse – Using drugs and alcohol greatly affects sleeping patterns and quality of sleep, leading to an increased probability of SP.
Stress and anxiety – Anyone who’s experienced intense stress and anxiety knows all too well the havoc they can wreak on sleeping habits. These, along with higher levels of alcohol consumption, are what I believe triggered my worst period of SP episodes.
Sleep disorders – Those who suffer from conditions such as narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, or nighttime cramps are at a higher risk of experiencing SP.
Sleeping on your back – Hardly the underlying the cause of SP; however, sleeping on your back does appear to increase the likelihood of experiencing an episode.
Might be hereditary – It’s believed that SP may be genetic, though researchers so far have not found a specific link.
Sleep researchers continue to investigate the causes and risk factors of SP, and I’ll continue to update this article as more information becomes available.
There is no single pill that can be taken to eliminate SP from your life and prevent future episodes, but that doesn’t mean you should panic.
Usually, there is no need to treat the condition medically (though please do see a doctor if the condition persists and intensifies) since it would mean taking shots in the dark at the multitude of risk factors that could be the culprit(s).
Sleep paralysis can, however, be treated by making changes that improve sleeping habits and by eliminating or mitigating SP’s risk factors.
As someone who has experienced chronic, frequent sleep paralysis and has now lived more than five years without an episode, I am living proof that this condition can be bested. So, buckle up and get ready to tackle this beast on your own terms.
I was 14-years young and going into ninth grade when I first experienced sleep paralysis. At the time, I had no idea what it was, and it caused me to heavily question my belief in ghosts and the spirit world. The experience just felt so real.
When I talk about it with people, I relate it to the scene in the movie Darkness Falls where the tooth fairy looms about the little kid’s bedroom.
Despite having the pants scared off me, I got over it a few weeks later by rationalizing it as “I must’ve been dreaming.”
Each year after in the same general time frame, I’d experience a similar occurrence. It happened before tenth grade, eleventh, and then my senior year. I finally learned that it was sleep paralysis after my senior year episode scared the shit out of me. In all of my prior episodes, the hallucinations never moved, but that time they did, and after that I needed to know what was going on.
My SP resurfaced when I was going through a particularly hard time in college. Stressed, anxious, and drinking far too much alcohol, I fell into a month-long bout with SP that, at its worst, occurred two to three times per night, every night, for a week straight.
I felt so terrified of falling asleep and became so sleep deprived that I took that week off school and spent my time curled up in a ball lying in bed next to my mother. Not something I’m particularly proud of, but she helped get me through those times.
Other episodes during that hellish month included seeing an imp-like creature sit on my chest then watching it dive into my soul (I could feel it going through me – it was terrifying), and watching multiple old hags circle about my bedroom while I laid helpless.
Since then, I’ve randomly experienced SP on a handful of other occasions, none occurring in the last five or so years.
Upon reflection, I believe my SP was caused by heightened feelings of stress and anxiety before starting a new school year. I usually had trouble sleeping the week or two before school resumed, and coincidentally that was when my episodes occurred.
The college years SP was without a doubt caused by stress, anxiety, and alcohol. My sleep patterns were erratic at best, often pulling all-nighters to play video games then doing homework an hour before class the next day.
My experience with SP acted as more fuel to the fire to change my poor behaviors and start living a healthier, more well-balanced lifestyle.
The first episode of SP is by far the hardest to cope with, as you likely won’t have a clue what just happened. Your next few might be even worse if, like me, you fail to properly diagnose yourself.
You will be scared. You will think you’re going crazy. You might think ghosts exist. You might think demons are real, and you might even question whether or not you’ve been possessed by one.
You’ll also feel anxious – very anxious – as you try to rationalize the situation.
All I could think about in the days following an episode was how intense that initial feeling of fear felt after realizing I couldn’t move while lying in bed. It sucked and I felt alienated since the people I told had no idea what I was talking about (something that might be better nowadays since sleep paralysis has become more common knowledge).
Getting over your first episode might not be pleasant, but it will happen in time. Identifying your night terrors as sleep paralysis – which hopefully you will have done by reading this article – dramatically improves your well-being and puts you on the road to more peaceful nights of sleep.
“Ok, I’m not going crazy, and I can beat this.”
Knowing what you’re dealing with is truly half the battle - learning about SP drops the scare factor down at least 50%, according to my own personal experience. Then, the other half is comprised of learning what to do during future episodes and how to stop them from occurring altogether.
Sleep paralysis usually doesn’t happen once, unless you’re extremely lucky (which you probably aren’t if you’re reading this), so expect more experiences with SP. The good news is that the more you experience SP, as long as you know how to handle it, each episode should lessen in severity.
Here’s a good recipe to follow for dealing with future episodes of sleep paralysis, which I derived from my own personal experience and input from research across the web.
- Understand what SP is and what it can do. As I said before, knowing is half the battle. You’re here reading this, so check this off your list.
- Get pissed off. A simple change in mindset goes a long way. Since SP greatly hinders your ability to get a solid night’s sleep and feel well-rested, it’s not something you want to deal with all the time. I got fed up of feeling tired and being afraid to fall asleep, so I, for lack of a better term, got pissed off and declared it would no longer reign over me.
- Learn to recognize the onset of SP. I learned that most of my SP episodes started after “waking up” and hearing a buzzing or ringing sound in my ear. Apparently, this is also common with others. After hearing this noise, I’d become paralyzed, stricken with fear, and then the hallucinations would take over. Eventually, I could anticipate when an episode would occur, which greatly reduced the intensity of the occurrence.
- Stay calm, don’t let the fear consume you. Telling you to stay calm is actually my mild attempt at humor. At least for me, it was literally impossible to remain totally calm during an SP episode. Something in your brain just triggers an intense blanket of fear throughout your body at SP’s onset. On a serious note, while the fear is inevitable, you don’t want to get lost in it. Quickly tell yourself, “Oh, here comes sleep paralysis,” and don’t let the initial fear turn into a full-fledged panic.
- Direct your focus away from the SP. Even the sleeping brain is still just a human brain, which means it can be rather easily distracted. Fear is the perfect case of “what we focus on is what we feel.” Instead of focusing on everything else going on during SP, direct your focus to one of your appendages, like your fingers or your toes. I typically tried focusing on wiggling one of my toes, which helped take my mind off the demons and witches flying about. By the time you’re able to physically wiggle your toes (or fingers or whatever), the episode is over and you’ve broken out of it.
- Practice. Sounds dumb for me to say “practice dealing with SP,” but it’s honestly what helped me the most. Eventually, after following the recipe above, I would hear buzzing, feel the fear envelop me, direct my attention to my toes, wiggle, and break free. Episodes that used to feel like they lasted twenty to thirty seconds gradually shortened to a few seconds. Once I felt confident in my ability to cope with SP episodes is strangely when they stopped occurring.
I am living proof that sleep paralysis can be “overcome”, and future episodes can be significantly deterred if not eliminated completely.
I believe that the best things for helping my SP were adding and removing habits that improved sleep, practicing the recipe above to deal with episodes and reduce their severity, and talking about it with others. Talking about my SP and how it made me feel helped take some of the power away from it and the control it held over me.
That said, here are some specific actions you can take to prevent future sleep paralysis episodes:
Prioritize sleep. If you’re someone who typically sacrifices sleep in favor of work, pleasure, or for bragging about your lack of sleep to friends, stop. Sleep might just be the best thing you can do for your health, so make sure you get plenty of it.
Do things that promote a good night’s sleep. I never really knew what a good night’s sleep was until I spent all day at an amusement park as an adult. Simply put, you’re exhausted after an entire day of being active. While you may not be able to afford to do this every day (financially and mentally), you can do other things that either tire you out or promote a healthy night’s sleep. Exercising is obviously the frontrunner here, but other things include nixing alcohol, reducing caffeine consumption, minimizing electronic use before bed, and reducing stress and anxiety (also mentioned below).
Don’t sleep on your back. After reading about this online and observing my own SP episodes, I realized that that vast majority of them definitely occurred while sleeping on my back (the “supine position” for you nerds out there). Try sleeping in other positions for a while, at least during your road-to-recovery period. I suspect, like me, you will eventually be able to sleep like this again, but for now at least try other positions.
Reduce stress and anxiety. This goes for both mental stress and physical stress. A great deal of my SP I believe was caused by elevated levels of stress and anxiety. I ate like shit and drank my weight in alcohol, which put an immense amount of physical stress on my body. In addition, I felt overwhelmed at school on a daily basis and had never properly learned how to manage that. Once I learned better ways to cope with stress such as eating healthier, practicing mindfulness, and exercising, my anxiety subsided and I noticed fewer and fewer episodes.
Stay away from the booze (and other substances). I’ll be honest – I still drink alcohol today, but much more moderate than previously. You certainly don’t have to remove alcohol for the rest of your life, but it’s probably a good idea while trying to fix your SP issues. Alcohol and other drugs, as mentioned above, reduce sleep quality in addition to the plethora of other problems they cause. At the very least, keep consumption to a bare minimum and try not to drink anything a few hours before bedtime. This was a major factor in getting over my SP.
Treat underlying health conditions. While SP may not be caused by other health conditions, it can certainly be associated with them. If you suffer from mental health issues, narcolepsy, or other sleep disorders, make sure to talk with a doctor and seek treatment for those, which may help regulate your sleeping habits and mitigate SP.
Try to have fun with it. As I felt the power SP held over me subsiding, I found myself embracing my episodes and treating them like mini-experiments. Once you learn that you’re not going crazy and SP likely won’t kill you, it makes dealing with everything much easier.
Even though I haven’t had an episode in a long time, I certainly experienced my fair share of “relapses” after I overcame the worst of my SP.
Deal with these relapses in the same manner that you would with your initial bouts of sleep paralysis. Follow the steps in the “what to do with future episodes” and “how to prevent future episodes” sections and hopefully things won’t ever escalate back to where they were when it all started for you.
Throughout the years, I’ve had a lot of highs and lows in my journey with sleep paralysis. It feels good to be on the other side having come out relatively unscarred. Plus, anytime I mutter the words ‘sleep paralysis’ in public, I usually form an instant bond with anyone who’s ever experienced it too.
Hopefully by reading this article, you’ll feel much more at ease and capable to tackle your sleep paralysis.