When sleep brings terror

February 03, 2023

If something like this has happened to you, you probably experienced sleep paralysis....

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Have you ever come out of a deep sleep with a feeling of deep foreboding? You feel a presence in the room out to get you - something evil, although you cannot see or hear it. You try to get up, but are unable to move a muscle. It’s like you’re paralysed. As a result, you are overcome by a strange feeling of dread. You instinctively try to draw a deep breath, but you can’t. It feels like there’s some sort of weight on your chest, like you can’t breathe. You start to panic. Will this ever stop?

As suddenly as it began, it’s over. You can move. You turn on a light and survey your bedroom. You see nothing out of the ordinary, nothing out of place. You take a few minutes to calm down and then try to get back to sleep…

If something like this has happened to you, you probably experienced sleep paralysis.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking. Sleep paralysis may accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is an overpowering need to sleep caused by a problem with the brain’s ability to regulate sleep. Many people experience sleep paralysis. If you experience it, it does not automatically mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ with you.

Your body couldn’t move because your body often can’t move when you’re asleep. In rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, for example, many of your voluntary muscles are atonal (the muscles have no tone). Sleep researchers think that REM atonia happens so that people don’t act out their dreams. In essence, sleep paralysis occurs when your mind and your body don’t wake up at the same time.

Sleep paralysis is normally harmless but that doesn’t mean it’s the greatest experience in the world. In fact, you feel terrified because you sense some evil person or entity is in the room and are unable to breathe.

Being unable to breathe is probably tied to the paralysis. You have anti-gravity muscles that help you breathe. When you’re in REM, your anti-gravity muscles are sluggish. You really can breathe, of course. It just feels like you can’t. Believing that you can’t breathe only adds to the terror.

Some people hallucinate during sleep paralysis. They see all sorts of strange things. The hallucinations are happening because part of your brain is still in a dream state. Instead of seeing those weird and wacky images in your dreams, you’re seeing them in the room with you.

If you’ve experienced sleep paralysis, you might be worried, but you just have to remember that it is common and, does not mean that there is anything medically or psychologically wrong with you.

How to avoid sleep paralysis

There are no proven therapies that can stop a sleep paralysis episode, but there are few things that can help prevent sleep paralysis and help you fight the terror:

* Avoid caffeine close to bedtime.

* Avoid sleeping on your back.

* Understanding what is happening can make the experience less overwhelming, so keep telling yourself that everything is all right.

* Try to relax and breathe normally to reduce the length and intensity of an attack.

* Concentrating on moving one small muscle, such as a finger, can break the paralysis and end the attack.

* Avoid irregular sleep patterns and get plenty of sleep. People who are sleep deprived or who have unusual sleep patterns (like shift-workers) can have disturbed REM sleep.

* Someone else touching you might bring you out of it, but this has yet to be confirmed.

If you find yourself experiencing sleep paralysis, remind yourself that sleep paralysis is nothing more than a ‘waking dream’ and you’ll be truly awake soon.

While scary, these episodes are harmless and typically a sign of poor sleep quality. If you’ve tried the strategies above and you’re still experiencing sleep paralysis, then it’s time to visit your doctor. They’ll review your sleep habits and see if there’s anything else they can do to help.

- Compiled by ZN

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