One of the most horrifying experiences is that of being held down either after falling asleep or while waking up. There are nights when you feel like there is an entity in your room, but you can’t scream, talk, call for help or move; you can just feel the pressure of someone sitting on your chest or standing right beside your bed and staring at you. You need not be afraid anymore; you probably just have sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder in which a person who is falling asleep or waking up, temporarily experiences an inability to move, speak or react.
It happens because our bodies are paralysed during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the stage where dreaming occurs. We are paralysed during the REM stage so that we don’t act out our dreams, which could be dangerous. But when your body is not travelling smoothly through the different stages of sleep, things change. REM tends to lengthen into consciousness and your body becomes immobile, even though your brain is alert. This is when you experience sleep paralysis, the transitional state between being fully awake and sleep.
Sleep paralysis has often been mistaken by people as a night time visit by demons or an alien abduction. The inexplicable figures seen during sleep paralysis are caused by dreams and hallucinations that your brain starts to believe are real and happening around you.
Sleep paralysis is a very common phenomenon that affects almost four out of every 10 people from time to time. While it is most commonly experienced by teenagers, it can affect anyone, irrespective of age and gender. There are also cases where sleep paralysis runs in the family. It is very occasionally linked to an underlying psychiatric problem.
There are few other factors that contribute to sleep paralysis:
• Insufficient sleep.
• Changes or alterations in your sleep pattern.
• Psychological conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and stress.
• Sleep positions, such as sleeping on your back or keeping your hands on your chest and exerting pressure on it.
• Problems linked to sleep, such as narcolepsy or night-time leg cramps.
• Usage of certain medications for conditions like ADHD.
• Substance abuse.
If you experience sleep paralysis frequently, you should visit a doctor for it. Occasional sleep paralysis can be prevented by avoiding triggers. You can start by getting six to eight hours of sleep every night. Try to relax and stop thinking about stressful things before you go to sleep. You should also get checked for prevailing mental disorders. Avoid sleeping on your back with your hands on your chest; try new sleep positions instead.
If you still continue to experience sleep paralysis and want to prevent it, keep these pointers in mind:
• Don’t resist: It has been reported that fighting sleep paralysis by forcefully trying to wake up or move only makes the experience worse.
• Surrender yourself and go with the flow: Try to relax and if you feel a pressure on your chest, try to go with it rather than against it.
• Wiggle your toes: Wiggling your fingers and toes can help break the sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis mainly affects the chest, stomach and throat. By shifting the extremities, such as fingers and toes, you might be able to break free from it.
• Clench your fists: You can try clenching and unclenching your fists to lift the paralysis.
• Control your breathing: If you control your breathing, you can control your fear. Get your breathing back to normal and exhale using your entire lung capacity. You will feel calmer and be able to wake up without a problem.
• Ask for help: Make sure that your sleep partner is aware of your condition and the signs to look for so that they can wake you up from sleep paralysis.
• Cough: Coughing is an autonomic activity that is not controlled by sleep paralysis. You can try to cough on purpose in order to wake up.
• Scrunch up your face: Make a face like you have smelled something foul, snarl, and squint two or three times to wake up.
• Freshen up: Once you have woken up from sleep paralysis, get out of bed immediately, switch on the lights, and wash your face with cold water. Going back to sleep in the same bed soon after waking up increases the risk of sliding back into sleep paralysis.