Have you ever felt so frightened that you thought you would die? Have you ever experienced total-body paralysis just before falling asleep or immediately upon waking? If you have, then you’re not alone. Symptoms like these are very common among people who suffer from sleep paralysis. If you’re not familiar with this scary sleep phenomenon, here are 10 things you didn’t know — but should.
It feels paranormal
Anyone who has ever experienced sleep paralysis can tell you it’s horrifying and almost paranormal. Sufferers often describe feeling a ghost-like presence in the room, as well as feelings of terror and anxiety. These hallucinations are often accompanied by strange sounds and smells. Researchers in the field of sleep paralysis suggest that many people experience severe fearfulness — in comparison to fear experienced during normal dreaming.
It’s easy to see why it feels paranormal. Sleep paralysis often includes such frightening episodes as autoscopy (a rare phenomenon whereby a person sees their own image) or the feeling of levitating. In addition, sufferers often report feeling the presence of evil in the room, and even experiencing physical or sexual assault.
Beliefs intensify the experience
Cultural beliefs might actually make sleep paralysis episodes that much more frightening — and even intensify fear in future episodes. Sleep paralysis episodes are often interpreted in a number of culturally-specific contexts, suggests research conducted by Sleep Medicine Reviews. The Association for Psychological Science (APS) believes these supernatural interpretations may also cause distress after the episode.
Various cultures interpret these frightening experiences as supernatural, with explanations ranging from witchcraft to demons to alien abduction. However, contemporary medical explanations for the cause of sleep paralysis are not so “far out.”
Might be a medical condition
Researchers believe episodes of sleep paralysis are linked with conditions such as seizure disorders, narcolepsy and even hypertension. In addition, general lack of sleep, waking up frequently, jet lag and shift work are also thought to be contributors. However, there are even isolated incidents of healthy individuals experiencing this frightening condition — so it can happen to anyone.
Sleeping on your back doesn’t help
Are you a back sleeper? It’s well known that these episodes are more likely to occur just before you fall asleep or just as you awaken. However, episodes are also more likely to occur if you sleep in the supine position (on your back). So, roll over and try a new sleeping position.
Linked to psychiatric disorders
Evidence shows that sleep paralysis may also be related to certain psychiatric disorders, such as dissociative phenomena or (emotional numbing), suggests the Sleep Medicine Reviews. However, it’s more often associated with anxiety disorders, panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. In addition, those who are highly sensitive to stress, chronic fear and anxiety are more likely to experience sleep paralysis.
There could be a genetic link
Researchers (Denis, French, Rowe, Zavos, Nolan, Parsons & Gregory, 2015) for the Journal of Sleep Research, conducted a study titled “A twin and molecular genetics study of sleep paralysis and associated factors.” The study investigated the link between sleep paralysis and genetics. Researchers compared sleep and sleep paralysis data for identical and nonidentical twins and siblings. Apparently, genetics was a factor in 53 percent of cases of sleep paralysis among their subjects. While research revealed that stress, trauma, anxiety and depression made sleep paralysis more likely, it also suggested that family links to sleep paralysis could exist.
Night terrors and sleep paralysis are different
Unlike sleep paralysis, during which partial or complete skeletal muscle paralysis occurs when falling asleep or waking up, night terrors abruptly wakes a person up from sleep in a terrified state. In addition, those who suffer from night terrors often experience crying or screaming, increased heart rate or breathing, and sweating. Night terrors can last up to 15 minutes, after which the person usually falls back asleep, not remembering the event the next morning. While sleep paralysis doesn’t pose a danger, people experiencing sleep terrors may pose a danger to themselves or others from jumping on the bed or running around.
It’s still a bit of a mystery
Sleep paralysis is common among the general population and even more common for students and psychiatric patients. However, sleep paralysis is still a bit of a mystery. Science understands what happens to the body during sleep paralysis, but not necessarily the psychological impact. The medical community is yet to understand why people experience the “hag phenomena” (seeing an old witch beside the bed), which has been happening to people for centuries. More research is needed to determine the impact on individuals and how episodes relate to psychiatric and other medical conditions.
It’s not dangerous
As frightening as an episode can be, according to Stanford University, sleep paralysis isn’t actually dangerous, nor is it typically a sign of a serious condition. Sleep paralysis is one symptom of narcolepsy, but not an indication of narcolepsy or even another sleep disorder. While episodes can last as long as a few minutes, and sufferers become extremely frightened, sleep paralysis is not known to be harmful. However, there are certain things you can do to reduce your risk of experiencing it, suggests Stanford University.
You can lower your risk
There are things you can do to decrease your chances of experiencing this frightening disorder. Michael J. Breus Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and member of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, suggests focusing on the fundamentals of healthy sleep: maintain a regular sleep routine, avoid stimulants (especially alcohol), exercise regularly, eat well, and avoid late-night snacking.
Breus also says it’s important to monitor your stress and mental health. Anxiety and depression are common, so seeking treatment can help you sleep better and may help lower your risk of developing sleep paralysis.
Recently, Jake Carney, founder of The Alternative Daily, recounted his experience with sleep paralysis on his weekly podcast. Listen to how this strange condition has impacted him.
The bottom line: If you do experience sleep paralysis, don’t panic. Calmly remind yourself that however frightening and confusing the experience is, it’s temporary, harmless and will soon pass. Accepting that sleep paralysis is just psychological can help you cope better with episodes and be less afraid of this creepy sleep phenomenon. Sleep tight.
Katherine Marko is a freelance writer, author and blog creator. Her areas of expertise include food, health, style, beauty, business and nutrition. Marko holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a diploma in photography, graphic design and marketing, and certification in esthetics.