What Exactly Is Sleep Paralysis?
Maybe this has happened to you. You’ve been woken up, or you’re pretty sure you’re awake—it still kind of feels like a dream, but you’re definitely conscious, and not lucid dreaming. You eyes might even be open. So you go to move and… you can’t. Your body just doesn’t respond. You start to panic, because why won’t my body move. And you struggle but nothing happens, and then when you start to wonder if you’ve been paralyzed in your sleep, suddenly your body responds and your eye fly open. You’re okay. It was just a weird dream.
Except it wasn’t. If you’ve ever had that feeling, you’ve experienced sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that happens to about 8% of sleepers in their life at least once. It’s happened to me a handful of times, and it’s pretty terrifying—like most people who’ve had it happen, I felt like I woke up dead. Fortunately, you’re not dead, and it can’t kill you—no deaths have been reported because of it.
What actually happens is a malfunction between your body and mind in REM sleep. REM is the deepest part of sleep, and during it, our brain shuts down our body (this is called atonia) so it can’t flail around and try to act out our dreams or injure us while we’re sleeping. In sleep paralysis, the body stays in atonia but the brain wakes up (and then starts freaking out). It can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, though there are very rare chronic cases where people have it for hours. You can still breathe, since that doesn’t stop when you’re asleep, but the panic can make people feel chest pressure. Sometimes, due to our fight-or-flight instincts, people report feeling like they’re being chased or that someone is in their room.
So, what to do if it happens? Honestly, there isn’t much you can do. While some people say that wiggling fingers or toes helps, usually you just have to wait it out—and try not to panic too much.
It’s a natural occurrence, and most people will experience it at least once; a recent study do show it’s higher in teens and those with a history of mental illness. Fortunately, you can try to prevent it by sleeping more. Sleep paralysis is often attributed to sleep deprivation, so getting more and better zzzs will help.