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7 Critical Things To Know About Sleep Paralysis (As Someone Who Suffers From It)

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sleep paralysis
Health And Wellness

It's a mix of a nightmare, insomnia, and inability to move.

I sometimes experience a phenomenon called sleep paralysis. But what is sleep paralysis? It's something I can only describe...

I lie in my bed, unable to move. Is there a new bulb in the street light? Why is it red? She looms over me, covered in a decaying, gauzy nightgown. I can’t see her, she’s there. I can’t hear her; I’m desperate so that she can’t hear me.

Someone else is whispering. What is he saying? There’s nothing on my chest but the covers weigh everything. This is my bed, my room, and I feel unwelcome. It can’t have been more than 60 seconds, but it feels like hours. She’s still there, so why can’t I see her shadow?

Noise, real noise. My dog barks. I yell, “Wake up!” but I’m still frozen. I hear the clickity-clack of his nails against our wood floors. What does he know? I rouse, the room is the same but the colors have lost their nightmarish hue. 


RELATED: Why Some People Have Nightmares And Others Don't


I find my anxious dog stalking the hallway. The logical part of my brain insists that something was happening in front of our door — the superstitious part, the reptile part, the nighttime part screams for me to thank him for saving me from something even if that something is just fear.

What causes sleep paralysis like this? Here are seven things to know about the condition and how you can stop experiencing something so nightmareish.

1. You can’t move.

In most cases of sleep paralysis, a person is somehow interrupted either waking or falling asleep. Some people experience general sensory hallucinations and associated fear. Some people hear, see and feel things that aren’t there. Some people feel like they’re leaving their body. Some people feel trapped in their body like Being John Malkovich.

For me, the experience generally also consists of a red-hued light and a feeling of panic at the paralysis, even if there is no malevolent presence. 

2. You feel like you're floating.

While in REM sleep (rapid eye-movement), AKA dreaming, your body is likely paralyzed. Neurotransmitters inhibit your skeletal muscles from moving, but your heart and eyes doing their thing. Well, they sometimes overdo their thing.

Were it not for this paralysis or semi-paralysis, you’d karate kick your partner to death or possible tear your rotator cuff swimming through the cotton candy clouds of vivid dreaming. You may move around a bunch during the night, but much of that is likely during non-REM sleep.

3. Most people have experienced it.

The numbers vary, but roughly one-third of people have experienced sleep paralysis at least once and around 5 percent of people have it with some regularity. There as roughly 3 million US cases per year and, doing the math, that would appear to be less than 1 percent of people, but statistics is a wicked mistress.

At any rate, if you’ve experienced it, it’s likely you’ve either forgotten or recall it as something else. I’ve likely met fewer than five people who claim to have experienced it, but it’s hardly a first date kind of question. 


RELATED: 11 Most Common Nightmares And What They're Trying To Tell You


4. It's comparative to a nightmare.

The original meaning of the word “nightmare” does not describe a bad dream, but this phenomenon. In Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary Of The Modern Language, he describes the phenomenon of a malevolent, often female, presence sitting on a person’s chest or the edge of their bed.

The term grew from night hag to night-mare (a mare being a female horse) and finally into nightmare. Even when there’s no succubus, it still really sucks.

5. There isn't really an explanation.

A good scientist will use her knowledge of a topic and try to explain anything related to that topic. A great scientist will admit that despite being the foremost expert on a topic, her knowledge on a topic will never explain everything. Science (especially medicine) is mostly made up of good scientists. That’s a way of saying no one is especially able to explain sleep paralysis and why many of the hallucinations are similar.

The Mayo Clinic has sleep paralysis as a sub-category of narcolepsy, which is not defined as movies would have us think (hilariously falling asleep at inopportune times) but as the body’s inability to regulate sleep cycles. At any rate, medicine relates sleep paralysis to sleep apnea, the aforementioned narcolepsy, bipolar disorder, atonic seizures and substance abuse.

6. There's a connection between sleep paralysis and alcohol.

One of the substances that science seems to correlate most with occurrences of sleep paralysis is alcohol. Personally, I have experienced sleep paralysis both on and off the hooch, but I’d have to say that it’s more common after a bender than some random Wednesday during boring season. 

7. It could be a defense mechanism.

I’m afraid of the dark. Most people are to some extent unless they’ve actively broken themselves of the fear. I grew up in a creaky house and there was a Halloween decoration of a witch stored in the closet of my bedroom (WHY!?!?). I have a hard time sleeping if a closet door is open within sight of my sleeping place (or can see myself in a mirror, but that’s more feng shui than anything).

This is not logical. However, I have very vivid dreams, and the negative ones are just as colorful and real as the beautiful ones. Like virtually all fears, it’s likely a defense mechanism that allows hyper-vigilance to defeat common sense. One of these days I should engage in cognitive behavior therapy, EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprogramming), or try some LSD under the care of a "medical" expert and see if I can’t beat this thing. 


RELATED: 9 Major Signs You Have A Scary Condition Called Sleep Paralysis


Tom Miller is a writer and performer based in New York. He's been a mechanical engineer and a banker. He's been the general manager and coordinating video producer at YourTango for 12 years.