Sleep Paralysis: What Is It And Why Does It Happen?

Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? That strange feeling of being awake and responsive, but not being able to move? Chances are you have or will experience it at some point during your lifetime. Read on to find out exactly what sleep paralysis is and why it happens.

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I was five or six years old when sleep paralysis first happened to me. I was having a dream in which I was in my own house, standing in my living room and staring at my mother’s bedroom door. There was this very weird music playing in the background as if the record player was playing music in fast-forward. Suddenly the door to my mother’s bedroom opened. I immediately knew something was wrong, but couldn’t figure it out.

Then I remembered; whoever was in the doorway wasn’t my mother. But it was a woman. I was trying to figure out who she was, but she suddenly started moving towards me at a very fast, at an almost inhuman speed. She wasn’t threatening as she advanced towards me, but I couldn’t quite make out her features and it was frustrating me. I remember I couldn’t move. She advanced closer until she reached me. She was a skinny woman, dark complexion, and she wore a simple 1970s-style bright red dress.

I still couldn’t move. I knew I was really awake, but I also knew I was still in some sort of dream-like state too. I remember feeling very scared now. Then she touched me, and I was REALLY freaking out inside my paralyzed body. She reached out and grabbed my arms. That’s when I saw her clearly for the first time. Or rather I saw it for the first time. That’s the reason I was freaking out. I was almost able to move for a second, but her/its arms were like pure steel, holding my arms tight. She/it was trying to speak to me — again, not in a really threatening way, but I was able to sense that she/it was almost frustrated because I couldn’t understand her/it.

You see, she/it had no face. No features at all. Not even a mouth to speak to me, but I could hear muffled sounds coming from where her/its mouth was supposed to be. My child’s mind couldn’t process it; all I wanted to do was get away, but she/it held me tight. After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to move, able to really wake up. I’d never been so relieved in all my life. I never mentioned anything to my family, not even to this day. Even at that young an age, I knew that they wouldn’t quite get it.

Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain and body aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to sleep. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreaming is frequent, but the body’s muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis. The purpose of this is perhaps to keep people from acting out their dreams. Becoming mentally aware before the body “wakes up” from its paralyzed state can be a terrifying experience, as people realize they can’t move or speak.

Frequently, these episodes are accompanied by hallucinations and the sensation of breathlessness. Up to as many as four out of every 10 people may have sleep paralysis. This common condition is often first noticed in the teen years. But men and women of any age can have it. Sleep paralysis may run in families. Other factors that may be linked to sleep paralysis include:

  • a lack of sleep
  • a sleep schedule that changes
  • mental conditions such as stress or bipolar disorder
  • sleeping on the back
  • other sleep problems such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps
  • use of certain medications
  • substance abuse
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If you find yourself unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes when falling asleep or waking up, then it is likely you have isolated recurrent sleep paralysis. Often there is no need to treat this condition. However, check with your doctor if you have any of these concerns:

  • you feel anxious about your symptoms
  • your symptoms leave you very tired during the day
  • your symptoms keep you up during the night

Your doctor may want to gather more information about your sleep health, and may ask you to describe your symptoms and keep a sleep diary for a few weeks