If you’ve ever suddenly woken up during the middle of the night and felt like you couldn’t move or speak, you might be experiencing sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when you suddenly stop breathing during your sleep cycle; it’s a temporary condition that can be frightening for many people, but for others, it’s just a weird feeling.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Do you remember lying in bed, and as you were about to drift off, you felt like someone was watching you? You tried to force your eyes open, but something kept pushing them shut. You tried to scream, but nothing would come out. This happens to everyone at some time, and while it may sound strange, it’s actually fairly common. Nearly one-third of adults sometimes experience sleep paralysis, which is when they feel like they’re both awake and asleep at the same time.
Why Does It Happen?
There are many theories about why this happens, including sleep apnea (a condition where your airways get blocked when you sleep), narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder), or REM behavior disorder (where people act out their dreams). It’s also possible that a lack of oxygen at night could make you more susceptible to sleep paralysis. But sometimes, something goes wrong with this process.
If you happen to have an underlying medical condition or if something traumatic happens before bedtime, it can cause your body to wake up too early from sleep. This makes it difficult for your brain to continue producing melatonin and GABA properly—and if those hormone levels are too low, they won’t be able to help you fall back into your normal posture or do anything. You are basically paralyzed.
How Does It Work?
When you’re sleeping, your brain begins to slow down. This process is called hypnagogic sleep. Your brain also starts producing hormones called melatonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which help you fall asleep more easily and relax. As your muscles start to relax, your body falls into a deeper state of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. You’ll go through this process four times per night during the average adult lifespan—that’s why it takes so long to fall asleep!
You feel paralyzed, unable to move or speak. You may see things floating around your room. You think that you are being chased by a demon. Your heart starts racing. You feel like someone is touching or holding your chest. You are getting suffocated. You wake up suddenly with no memory of falling asleep! It makes you question your sanity, and you literally feel drained. It’s a phenomenon that happens when you fall asleep and wake up but can’t move or speak.
You feel like you’re being watched by a presence that seems to be coming from the corner of your room, your bedside table, or even your closet. You might also feel like someone is standing next to your bed, watching you sleep. While this may sound scary and strange, it’s actually more common than you might think. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 adults will experience this at least once in their lifetime—and it’s more likely for people who have had trauma in their lives (including sexual abuse).
The phenomenon is frightening because it feels like something is happening outside of your control—but most likely, it’s just your mind trying to trick you into thinking something bad has happened. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with either your legs or your mouth, or your eyes! It’s all in your head, and it is a hundred percent psychological. Sleep paralysis tends to be short-lived (usually lasting only a few seconds), and it’s not dangerous unless you believe it is dangerous (which is why we recommend not panicking).
The symptoms include: feeling as though someone (or something) is standing over your bed or near your head; seeing movement at night—usually shadows or dim shapes moving slowly across.
How Does It Manifest?
There are a few ways that sleep paralysis manifests: some people have nightmares that lead them to believe they’re paralyzed and need help; others have lucid dreams where they can see themselves lying on their backs, unable to move or speak, but are able to interact with the world around them.
It is the fear of being unable to move while you’re awake. It can happen at any time, but it’s most common in the middle of the night. You wake up and realize that your body isn’t responding to your commands. You might try to scream or move your finger, and you will find that you can’t.
Sleep paralysis can be frightening, to say the least, but it is not real, and there is no demon playing with you. It’s your mind.