Has this ever happened to you? You’re sleeping and then you suddenly wake up. Your eyes are open but you can’t seem to move your body and your breathing is strained. Sometimes you even see figures pushing you down, hands clutching your body. If your answer to all those questions is “Yes,” then you have experienced sleep paralysis. Don’t worry too much because you’re not alone, it happens to other people too.
Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious and partly awake but unable to move or speak. From my experience I sometimes feel pressure against my chest making it hard for me to even breath. You will be able to open your eyes and move them around but you may see figures as part of the hallucinations. These effects can last for a few seconds or a couple of minutes.
There are two occasions wherein one experiences sleep paralysis. This can happen when you’re either falling asleep or waking up. If it happens while you’re falling asleep it is called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis, hypnopompic or postdormital if it happens when you’re waking up.
The big question, Why? Why do we experience sleep paralysis? The scientific answer is that your brain wakes up before the REM cycle is complete or your body shuts down before the REM cycle begins. REM or rapid eye movement is the part of your sleep cycle where your eyes move quickly, your body remains relaxed, and dreams occur. So, when sleep paralysis happens it’s because your body stays paralyzed in REM but your brain wakes up.
If you’re in the middle of a sleep paralysis episode, try wiggling your fingers and toes to wake your body. It sounds strange but this usually works. Speaking from experience, what I’ve done is to stay calm. I close my eyes and try to get a hold of my breathing, I either go back to sleep or try to wake my body up.
For preventive measures try to fix your sleeping habits. Get a good night’s sleep for at least six hours. Make sure that your sleeping environment is comfortable and go to bed at roughly the same time so that your body clock is set properly.
Photo: The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)