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What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Young man sleeping in bed

Sleep paralysis is a legitimate condition with a bunch of folklore surrounding it. Whether you believe it’s just a strange state between being asleep and awake or that it’s a witch trying to kill you, sleep paralysis is scary.

Defining Sleep Paralysis

If you’ve ever experienced an inability to move or speak when you’re first falling asleep or waking up, you’ve had sleep paralysis. It’s common for a person to have sleep paralysis at least once in their life. Some people have it more often.

It’s scary when it happens. You are aware but unable to move. Luckily, sleep paralysis tends to pass with a few minutes at most. Most people come out of the state on their own; some do when someone touches them or talks to them. When you have sleep paralysis, you are stuck between awake and dreaming.

Aside from not being able to move or speak, sleep paralysis leaves you completely aware of the surroundings—your eyes are open, and you can see around you (though some people aren’t able to open their eyes). Other signs you’re in a state of sleep paralysis include:

  • You may feel a crushing weight on your chest and have difficulty taking deep breaths.
  • Some people have hallucinations of something in the room with them, possibly there to harm them.
  • You may feel anxiety after the episode, and have a fear of falling asleep again.

Parasomnia is the classification group that sleep paralysis falls under. Other types of parasomnia include night terrors, sleepwalking, sleep eating, bedwetting, and talking in your sleep.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Rapid eye movement (REM) happens when you reach the dream state of sleep. Sometimes, REM can occur when you’re just falling asleep or waking up. When that happens, you may experience sleep paralysis. During REM dream state, your body doesn’t move (aside from some twitching), which is what keeps you from getting up during sleep and acting out your dreams.

When it occurs right in that in-between state, you might be just conscious enough to experience that paralyzing effect.

For me, I found that my sleep paralysis (which has happened most recently four times in the past two years) happens when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. It’s always occurred when I’ve tried to wake up from a much-needed nap. I experienced an inability to move, but I could move my eyes and see where I was. In one of the episodes, I heard someone walking up our basement steps, but I was home alone.

For most people, the causes of sleep paralysis include:

  • Insomnia
  • Sleep deprivation
  • A change in sleep patterns
  • Jet lag
  • Heredity

It most commonly happens when you’re sleeping on your back, as well. It’s a symptom of narcolepsy, but you can experience sleep paralysis even if you’re not narcoleptic.

The Mystical Side of Sleep Paralysis

The first time I had my own case of sleep paralysis, I woke up in the middle of the night into the event. It happened over a decade ago and was the only time I experienced sleep paralysis until a couple of years ago. When I woke into the episode, it was still dark out. I felt as though I was being held down by a body on top of me, but there was nothing there. I heard rustling next to my bed. The event only lasted moments, but it felt like an hour.

After this first episode of sleep paralysis happened to me, I was convinced a witch or a demon was attacking me. I didn’t know what sleep paralysis was at the time. Interestingly enough, I’m not the first person to think they were being attacked by something otherworldly when experiencing sleep paralysis.

Because of the hallucinations that often happen with sleep paralysis, some cultures believe that sleep paralysis is caused by things like the devil, witches, and magic. Kanashibari is the Japanese word used to describe sleep paralysis, which means “bound in chains.” The Chinese call it “ghost oppression.”

Ways to Avoid Sleep Paralysis

If you don’t want to experience sleep paralysis or don’t want to have it again, you can do a few things to help avoid it. Sleep paralysis often gets better over time, but improving your sleeping habits and sleeping environment may help.

It can help to get a better night’s sleep by:

  • Going to bed at the same time each night, and waking up at the same time each morning
  • Having an ideal sleep environment (a cool, quiet, dark room with a comfortable bed and pillows)
  • Not eating a big meal before bed, and avoiding alcohol or caffeine right before you go to sleep
  • Reducing daily stress through exercise and meditation
Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »