Welcome back to your guide to sleep paralysis and all things going bump in the night. If you missed the first entry, check it out here.
We know sleep paralysis is a thing that happens to just under 10% of us, but what exactly is going down here? There’s a lot to break down, and a lot of questions that need answering. It’s important to know that no two people have the same experience, and your mileage may vary if you find yourself waking up stuck. That being said, knowing the why is hugely comforting to me, and I've got some tips and tricks to keep in your pajama pockets.
To simplify what happens during an episode, think about the craziest dream you’ve ever had. You know, the one where you’re outrunning a group of rabid parrots (Yes. Running. The parrots are flightless for some reason, don’t ask me, it’s your brain you weirdo.) who are all rhythmically chanting “you’re not good enough”. For some reason, you aren’t wearing pants and then you have to jump over a canyon filled with your mom’s meatloaf and riiight when you get to the other side you look down and you have circular saws instead of hands. Yeah, that one.
Well, right after you chat with your therapist about your relationship with your mom, picture how catastrophic it would be if your body actually did the things you dreamt about.
Of course, that actually happens to some people. Sleepwalking is essentially your brain forgetting to turn the “stay still” switch off, but that’s a weird sleep thing for another day. The point is, acting out your wildest dreams would be a pretty damaging thing even on your best night. So, your brain tells your body to cool it while you’re hitting the deepest phase of sleep to make sure you don’t die. It’s a useful feature.
What’s not quite as useful is when your brain gets step one down but then sails on past step two with no regard for your sanity and wakes on up. Because your body is in REM, your heart is beating slower and your limbs aren’t responsive, which can be scary enough in itself. The slow heartbeat feels wrong to your brain and can read as a heavy pressure on your chest or back, depending on the position you sleep in. The brain is left to cope with this strange situation and can hallucinate to try and explain why you feel the way you do, this is where things can go left real fast and the nightmare truly begins. A sinking feeling hits as you start to panic, and it doesn’t help with what comes next.
To summarize so far—the instant dread and paralyzed body you’ve suddenly woken to isn’t enough torture, so your brain casually throws the devil himself onto your chest just to really wreck your evening.
This coping mechanism is different for everyone, but commonly our brains communicate that someone must be on top of our bodies, smothering us. After interviewing 752 people who suffered from at least one sleep paralysis attack, researchers were able to extract three distinct categories of events.
Intruder: Categorized by a sensed presence, intense fear, and both auditory and visual hallucinations, this one varies wildly when it comes to content. Dread and panic are often associated with the hallucinations, and they can range from your brother screaming at you down the hall to a full-blown alien abduction. That’s right, aliens might just be perpetuated by the 8% of us experiencing sleep paralysis. Sorry to burst any bubbles.
Incubus: Fuseli’s The Nightmare tells this story the best. The incubus comes with pressure or pain in your chest and often makes breathing difficult. This can manifest in a creature sitting on your chest and smothering you, or, in the unlucky case of my husband, a hallucination that he was chocking me to the death in the middle of the night. You think it’s bad when your husband dream-cheats on you? Girl.
Unusual Bodily Experience: This one sounds almost fun, which annoys me since I’ve only experienced the two not-fun ones. Characterized by floating or flying sensations, bliss, and out of body feelings, the UBE is the least terrifying of cases. Some people even believe they can astral project when they reach this state, viewing themselves as they sleep and moving about the room. Here’s a how-to for the brave amongst us.
So what’s a gal to do when you awake to one of these episodes? There are a few things you can try. Scientists have determined that one of the keys to getting yourself out of a sleep paralysis attack is to stay calm, which is hilarious in the face of an alien abduction, but it helps. Grounding yourself in your surroundings and reminding yourself that your brain just made a teeny miscalculation can help you ease into waking up. There are tons of great grounding techniques to look into, but something as simple as counting your breaths can focus your mind and slow your roll.
Another trick to try is wiggling a finger or toe. Fighting through the paralysis in your mind might lead to actual movement, which can help rouse your body back into reality. Attempting to make a sound can have the same result, especially a loud, intense scream that would stress your vocal chords. A ghost in your room just isn’t the time for a quiet throat clear. Sing it loud, sing it proud.
Research suggests that it’s much more likely that those who sleep on their backs will have an episode, so if you’re feeling particularly anxious or struggling to get quality sleep, changing up your sleeping position might do the trick.
Some have even had success by disassociating themselves from their body during the attack and becoming a third party. It’s difficult to have the clarity of mind to separate yourself, but it usually triggers your body to wake up. Addressing why you're experiencing sleep interruption with your doctor might help prevent future episodes, and you should always consult with a medical professional when your sleep is on the line.
As for me? I scream. Or at least I try.
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