Sleep paralysis is an experience that most of us have had at least once, though some people have it more often. It’s one of the most terrifying experiences you’ll have in your life, but, except in rare cases, it’s completely harmless. If you have other sleep problems as well as sleep paralysis, I would recommend you see your GP as you may have some form of narcolepsy, but otherwise you’re safe.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Does this picture ring a bell?
It’s called ‘The Nightmare’ and it’s by Henry Fuseli. Usually said to be a picture of an incubus, demon or average nightmare, it actually describes the symptoms of sleep paralysis really well. St Patrick also used to suffer from it, but attributed it, like most historical cases of sleep paralysis, to demons.
Sleep paralysis happens when the mind wakes up before the body does. You will be paralyzed for a few minutes, usually feel something crushing your chest and if you’re unlucky enough to have opened your eyes, vivid and excruciating hallucinations. Other symptoms include breathlessness and symptoms not unlike that of an out-of-body experience, falling out or up of your body, your limbs being lifted up or forced downwards. Hallucinations are, as always, tailored to the particular sufferer, but almost always include one or more of the following:
- thinking you are being attacked by some sort of spirit/god/demon/etc – this happens less if you’re atheist, of course, I’ve also been convinced I was being strangled by a burglar before. I would imagine that’s the form they would take for a committed atheist, but your mileage may vary.
- being utterly convinced you are going to die. Like, seriously, this is the worst.
- something physical on your chest
- being watched and tormented by something or someone, or sense that something is coming to get you and will get you before you can move.
In my case, they are almost always preceded by a series of lucid nightmares. Yep, lucid nightmares. I am acutely aware of what is happening to me, I can control my own actions, and I am aware that I am dreaming. No matter what I’ve done, I struggle to wake myself up, and I usually wake up to an episode of sleep paralysis. Next time it happens I’m gonna try calming down, because usually as soon I work out that I’m lucid, I panic, because I know what happens. I think I’ve tried this before to no avail, but here goes nothing.
What Not To Do During An Episode
- panic. You will be able to move again, you can breathe even though it doesn’t feel like it. The knowledge that you’ve just gained about this being a normal and natural bodily function will make them less scary, I promise.
- open your eyes. Do not open your eyes first thing, even though they will be the first thing you can move. In fact, I recommend you don’t open your eyes until you can physically get out of bed and put the light on.
- go back to sleep. You must get out of bed, use the toilet or get a drink if you need to, and then do something to occupy your mind for at least half an hour. Or until you are no longer sleepy. I don’t know why, but after the paralysis ends you are mega sleepy, and if you go back to sleep you WILL have another episode. Get up.
How to Cope
During an Episode
As well as the tips above, use these:
- Concentrate on wiggling your toes and fingers FIRST. Not your eyes. As soon as you can move your fingers and feet you should feel the other symptoms recede.
- Get out of bed and walk around.
- Speak, as soon as you can. Doesn’t have to be loud, but I’m always frightened most by not being able to talk or scream during an episode.
- If you’re struggling to move, try and kick your bedsheets off, but don’t panic if you get tangled. Work on sitting up and pulling off the bedsheets with your hands.
Preventing an Attack
- Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.
- Somehow sleeping on your back causes attacks. Not sure why, just does.
- Avoid lucid dreaming workings. What triggers attacks differs from person to person – there’s only one meditation/dreaming exercise that doesn’t set off attacks for me personally, and if at anytime I try and change a dream beyond the ‘ooh look I’m having a dream about my favourite TV show, wouldn’t it be cool if character A did this’, that will cause an episode.
- There is a specific technique to cause lucid dreaming that I believe is called the WILD or WILDS technique that has been known to cause sleep paralysis in those that don’t normally get it, so steer clear of that.
- In fact, any out of body techniques that you are meant to do when you are asleep, on the edge of sleep or lying on your bed when you might fall asleep whether you intend to or not, are best avoided.
- Go to sleep at the same time each night if you can. Anything that can disturb sleep and not wake you up properly can cause sleep paralysis. Something as simple as having music instead of a beeping alarm can cause it for me – the music doesn’t startle me awake like the beeping, I just notice there being something ‘wrong’ in my sleeping environment and wake up wrong.
I hope this helps, if you have any questions, let me know and I will try and answer them.