Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night unable to move or speak and feeling like you can hardly breathe?
Chances are, what you've experienced is more than just a simple nightmare. You might be part of the 7.6% of the population that's experienced sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis occurs when your body is in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Your body "paralyzes" itself throughout the night to prevent you from acting out your dreams and thus waking yourself up. However, for an unknown reason, many people wake up during REM sleep and that paralyzation lingers, accompanied by imagery or hallucinations. Many who experience sleep paralysis report not being able to move their head or limbs, being unable to speak, sensing pressure, overwhelming fear and dread, and feeling like they're being choked. Sleep paralysis often happens when sleeping in the supine position, or lying face up on your back.
Have you experienced any of these symptoms? Sleep paralysis can manifest itself in different ways for different people, but chances are if you've experienced these symptoms, you're a victim of sleep paralysis. According to studies, 7.6% of the general population has experienced sleep paralysis, while 28.3% of students and 31.9% of psychiatric patients have experienced the phenomenon.
My sleep paralysis episodes tend to be quite similar. I jolt awake and feel as though there is a malevolent presence in the room – an intruder of sorts. Sometimes, I hallucinate and actually see a shadowy, faceless figure standing in my room. Startled and still quite sleepy, I would lie there unable to move my limbs or call for help. As I began experiencing sleep paralysis more frequently, I could recognize when I was having an episode, so a part of me knew when it was occurring that it was not real and in just a few seconds (which feel like hours, by the way) I would fully wake up and be "safe." Every single time I experienced it, I woke up lying on my back.
My worst experience was a few days after returning from my semester abroad in London. I was jet lagged and went to bed early. I jolted awake, and was aware of my surroundings – my door was wide open, I could see the light from the hall and hear my siblings moving around. However, in the corner stood that shadowy being, and I was terrified. I couldn't move, but I managed to force out a strained "help me" that one of my siblings heard. They came in and woke me up and I immediately broke down, running into my parents room crying like a little girl again. I knew it wasn't real, but it's terrifying nonetheless.
During my senior year of college I was under a lot of stress, which only made my sleep issues worse. I told my then-boyfriend about my sleep paralysis so that if it happened while we were together he would know what was going on. Sure enough, it happened the day after we returned from a trip to New York City. Just as I asked, he woke me up as soon as he heard my panicked breathing and whimpering, and said it was quite frightening to experience from his perspective, as well.
After learning more about sleep paralysis through Google searches, YouTube videos and whatever studies I could find, I realized there is very little out there about the topic considering how many people suffer from it, and a lot of people may not know what they are dealing with.
I am the only one in my family who has experienced sleep paralysis, and it wasn't until I really learned what it was that I explained it to my friends and family. As more people learn about it, more realize it's something they've struggled with too. After opening up about my struggles, one of my best friends said she, too, had experienced the phenomenon. Even Kendall Jenner opened up about the issue and her anxiety surrounding it in an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The best depiction of sleep paralysis I've seen is in The Haunting of Hill House. Nell struggles with sleep paralysis as an adult, and while her sleep paralysis stems from paranormal beings haunting her family (and your husband won't be killed if you have sleep paralysis), her acting during these scenes are spot on in terms of how I feel when I have sleep paralysis.
Some studies suggest that those who suffer from ADHD, anxiety, depression or other similar mental health issues are more prone to sleep paralysis. Since I suffer from some of these things myself, I believe this to be true. But there are no known solutions to eliminate sleep paralysis. I tried tea before bed, warm milk, melatonin and other sleep aids. I tried putting down my phone before bed. Nothing worked. In fact, I would suggest not taking melatonin if at all possible, as melatonin can actually make your dreams more vivid. The only thing that I found to help was going on Lexapro, a drug that treats anxiety and depression.
After years of struggling, I'm now going on almost six months without a true sleep paralysis episode – the exact amount of time I've been on Lexapro. I was prescribed 10mg per day to help treat my anxiety, and it has helped immensely to get rid of the fear I felt when going to bed at night. I'm no longer afraid to fall asleep. I stopped experiencing sleep paralysis altogether, and the closest I've gotten to sleep paralysis is when I've fallen asleep on my back and wake up worried it will happen again.
I recommend talking to your doctor or a therapist if this is something that occurs frequently for you. While they may not be able to cure sleep paralysis specifically, they can suggest different sleep remedies that may be right for you. Anti-anxiety medications may help you as well. If my sleep paralysis comes back, I plan on meeting with a sleep specialist to see if they have any more insight on the matter.
If someone you know experiences sleep paralysis, do them a favor and learn more about it. It can be extremely terrifying and effect your day-to-day life, and sometimes just knowing others understand is comforting in itself.
I want to know if you've experienced sleep paralysis! Tell me your stories in the comments below.