Picture this: it’s the middle of the night and you’re sound asleep.
Suddenly you wake up and it feels like something is on top of you.
But you can’t move, and you can’t scream, despite feeling conscious and aware of your surroundings.
This waking nightmare actually has a name: Sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a condition comprised of a number of symptoms, but is most closely associated with the experience of waking from sleep while experiencing paralysis of the body.
And if that weren’t terrifying enough, the other symptoms include hallucinations, a feeling of pressure on the chest, and intense fear.
So, why does it happen?
Well, paralysis is actually a normal and necessary part of sleep.
During REM sleep, which is when you dream, your eyes move around but your body is immobile.
One theory suggests that this occurs because if our bodies could react to what was going on in our dreams, it could be potentially harmful to ourselves or whoever we’re sharing a bed with.
As we enter REM sleep, our brains turn off the release of certain neurotransmitters in order to paralyze our bodies.
Now, normally, you become un-paralyzed before you’re consciously awake, but sometimes there’s a glitch.
In which case, a person may enter a state of conscious wakefulness before their body has woken up.
At which point the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that detects threats in the environment, signals a ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.
Which creates an overwhelming sense of fear or dread and causes your brain to go, “hey get out of here! Hurry!”
But the body doesn’t react.
Some individuals have even reported sensing an “evil presence” in the room with them when this occurs.
Sleep paralysis has been around for centuries, and descriptions of the experience are all over ancient folklore.
It even shows up in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick when the narrator wakes up to discover that he is unable to move.
It’s also thought that Henri Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare is a depiction of sleep paralysis
It’s estimated that up to 30% of people will experience the condition in their lifetimes.
And it typically occurs either as you’re falling asleep, or right when you’re waking up.
While there is no direct cause of sleep paralysis, researchers have landed on a few risk factors including a lack of sleep, sleeping on the back, and other sleep conditions like narcolepsy.
Anxiety and depression have also been linked to sleep paralysis. Social anxiety in particular has been linked to patients who sense a nearby presence during an episode.
Fortunately, the experience doesn’t last long and usually sorts itself out within a few seconds to minutes, once your mind and body get back in sync.
And since there’s no single cause of sleep paralysis, there’s no direct treatment for it.
Experts recommend making sure you get enough sleep and try to relieve stress in your life.
Also, if you sleep on your back, perhaps sleeping on your side could ward off a potential sleep paralysis episode.
But if you do experience it often enough that it’s bothersome and affecting your waking life, see a doctor.
Really makes you re-think the whole “sleep with one eye open” thing huh?