Have you ever felt utterly helpless between a state of sleep and wakefulness? You know that feeling when you think you are awake and aware, but are not able to fully comprehend it. And to make things worse, your limbs are absolutely frozen, so you cannot move them or even cry out for help. So, you lie in bed, waiting for your body to snap out of this unusual state of paralysis, all while being acutely aware of an ‘evil presence’ in the room, one that has, over shared experiences, come to be known as the ‘sleep demon’.
If you do not relate to the aforementioned experience, you are lucky. But those who have experienced sleep paralysis can vouch for the fact that the episodes are terrifying. They render you helpless and play with your fears. Biologically, it happens when you do not move naturally through the stages of sleep. And there is a rational explanation behind it, one that has got nothing to do with anything remotely paranormal.
While we have already explained the feeling, sleep paralysis mostly happens to people who have narcolepsy (a condition that causes overwhelming daytime sleepiness) or sleep apnoea (a dangerous condition in which a person’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts in sleep). But, it can also happen to absolutely anyone — that too, without a forewarning.
Over the years, researchers have tried to demystify this experience. According to them, sleep paralysis can occur either when you are falling asleep (hypnagogic), or just as you are waking up (hypnopompic). During hypnagogic sleep paralysis, your body relaxes and you slowly become less aware. But, if you are aware when this happens, you may notice you are not able to move or speak.
In the hypnopompic paralysis, however, you wake up before your body does and hence, are stupefied. In scientific terms, our body alternates between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) when we sleep. During NREM, the body is most relaxed. Towards the end, the body switches to REM. You may still be dreaming, but your muscles are relaxed so you do not act out your dreams. If you suddenly become aware before REM has finished, you find yourself paralyzed.
While it only lasts a few minutes or seconds, it can be extremely frightening.
Obviously. It is just a manifestation of the stress and a hallucination; an accompaniment of the strange experience.
Well, you cannot fight this paralysis, but you can do some things to ensure you get a good, rested sleep so it doesn’t happen. Start with having a proper sleep pattern. Go to sleep and wake up as per a set schedule, even when you are vacationing. Sleep in an environment that is comfortable for you — neither too hot, nor too cold; a room that dark without too much exposure.
Do not consume big and heavy meals, caffeine and alcohol just before bed, as these may interfere with the normal sleep cycle. Just before hitting the bed, engage in an activity that calms you down and takes away the day’s stress.
If however, you realise your experiences are too debilitating, visit a specialist at the earliest, who might prescribe medicines and chart out a proper course of action.