For two years, Tara (not her real name), found herself frozen in her supposedly haunted dorm room, feeling asleep and awake at the same time, and hoping to ride it out with a prayer.
It's a frightening experience that leave many Googling for answers the morning after. You’re asleep but not quite as a dark figure looms before you, threatening harm. You lay paralyzed in bed as your consciousness grapples for control—wiggling your toes, shaking your hands, and still, nothing. Welcome to sleep paralysis.
“I pray and move my toes daw. Usually I wait it out na lang,” Tara told reportr. After moving out, she said the episodes of sleep paralysis stopped, or at least decreased in frequency.
It’s a relief to wake up after the longest minute of your life. Is there a way to prevent it from happening again?
MORE ON SLEEP, OR THE LACK THEREOF:
What is sleep paralysis?
Muscle relaxation or atonia occurs during the Rapid Eye Movement phase, when you’re fully asleep. This is the body’s way of preventing you from acting out any dreams and potentially hurting yourself in your sleep.
“What’s weird is you’re conscious during this, so you have what we would call clear sensorial during these events,” said Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep disorders.
Ideally, atonia is in effect only during deep sleep, but sometimes it seeps into the hypnagogic state (when you’re about to fall asleep) or the hypnopompic state (when you’re about to wake up).
The brain may be conscious at this time and hallucinations may occur as you lay immobilized in bed. Panic sets in as you realize your hands, arms, feet, and even eyelids are frozen. That's when sleep paralysis happens.
According to Sharpless, sleep paralysis can fall into three categories:
- Intruder hallucinations: usually when there is a dangerous person or dark presence in the room
- Chest pressure hallucinations (or incubus hallucination): incite a feeling of suffocation, and can occur alongside intruder hallucinations
- Vestibular-motor (V-M) hallucinations: feelings of movement, levitation, or out-of-body sensations
“Throughout most of recorded history, people thought something supernatural was happening,” he said, citing attacks from malevolent entities.
Everyone’s got their own demons. While ours may take the form of white ladies, the manananggal, or the aswang, people halfway across the globe may suspect vampires or other creatures. “It seems to occur in every culture. Core features really don’t change. What does change is what you make of them,” he added.
Prior to being given an official name, sleep paralysis was called a nightmare, often linked with the supernatural.
Thieves or intruders may also make cameos during sleep paralysis. Though not real, they still cause stress that sends the body into fight or flight mode. Others may also feel as though their body is being lifted, or propelled upwards by some unexplainable force.
Sleep paralysis is not lucid dreaming
Lucid dreams occur during the REM phase, or the fully asleep phase, and individuals at this time are fully aware they’re dreaming. Sleep paralysis on the other hand disrupts your transition from REM to the hypnagogic state or hypnopompic state.
Lucid dreams can contain both positive and negative experiences like floating through the clouds or consciously watching a crime when you’re asleep. The main difference is the absence of physical threat, or at least, the feeling of physical danger that an episode of sleep paralysis may have. Consciousness during sleep paralysis may also appear more vivid which triggers panic.
Some people have come to enjoy lucid dreaming and are fully aware things are not real, with a few learning to gain control over the plot in dreamland. Others are able to calmly wake up from lucid dreams after events play out. With sleep paralysis, there’s a faint twitch of your body, insufficient to move and bring you back to the real world.
If you’re fully conscious that you’re asleep and can’t seem to clench your fist or wiggle your toes, it’s most likely sleep paralysis.
Is there a way to wake up?
It’s different for everyone, and research is yet to provide medical solutions to snapping out of it. Any attempts at waking up should be taken with caution, because while your mind is conscious, your body is still paralyzed and anything can happen.
Luke, not his real name, gets sleep paralysis from time to time and he found that taking deep breaths eventually wakes him. “I usually turn on the lights, stretch a bit, drink water. It doesn’t feel so bad anymore, except na lang if may parang magnanakaw. It still feels real.”
His sleep paralysis manifests as thieves, veiled figures, or a heaviness on his chest he can’t fight.
As for me, I consciously hold my breath to jolt myself awake. A friend suggested it, as the brain thinks you’re physically dying due to lack of air and shocks the body conscious to move.
Should I go to the doctor?
Well, it depends. Sleep paralysis has been linked to narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder that has you feeling incredibly sleepy during the day with sudden attacks of sleep. Still, sleep paralysis on its own, if frequently occurring, can be cause for concern.
“Isolated Sleep Paralysis is a recognized medical diagnosis in the international classification of sleep disorders,” Sharpless said. While acknowledged, much needs to be studied to fully understand it.
If you’re suffering from lack of sleep, mixed-up sleep schedules, and even stress, “You’re much more likely to have sleep paralysis,” he said. Making changes to your habits and condition while awake can reap more peaceful sleep later on, though the solution isn’t one-size-fits-all.
When in doubt, check in with a doctor or specialist to help you navigate the problem.