Sleep paralysis

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis since adolescence. For several years I didn’t know what it was, or that it was even a thing. I experienced it simply as a recurring nightmare: I lay pinned to my bed, unable to breathe or make a sound, with a sense of immediate danger from an invisible evil presence in the room.

The worst was in my late teens and early twenties. I’d experience it a few nights per week, often a few times per night. Sometimes I’d wake up from a nightmare only to fall back into it. I once woke up being absolutely certain that I would die if I fell back to sleep. So I stayed up until the morning.

Then there were periods when I wouldn’t have a single occurrence in months. It would seem to go away when I’d enter a romantic relationship, and re-occur once I was single again. I never got to understand the connection between the two, but I bet there is one.

In reality, it wasn’t a dream at all. I only learned this when I searched the internet for what I was experiencing. I was relieved to find online forums where many others shared experiences just like mine. I was more relieved when I learned that it was a thing.

Sleep paralysis is a state in which your mind is awake but your body is paralyzed. This comes from a natural safety mechanism — as you fall asleep, your brain disconnects from your limbs to prevent you from getting hurt while sleeping. However, some people can get stuck in this place and it’s scary. There can be auditory hallucinations, like sudden and loud banging, or somebody talking immediately next to your bed but just outside of your field of view. More often than not, there’s an unbearable sense of terror. Someone or something’s just beside your bed and coming to get you. No wonder people throughout history associated this with demonic possessions. It feels just like it.

Unfortunately, it also feels like a lucid nightmare which makes you try hard to wake up. Try calling for help or screaming — it doesn’t work. At best, what seems like muffled moans is what comes out. Try to move? Forget about it. This is paralysis after all.

Learning that this wasn’t just a recurring nightmare that I couldn’t escape and that would haunt me until the end of my life was like turning the lights on. Most important of all, in my online research I learned what do when it happens:

Just relax and breathe. Don’t fight it or try to wake up. Eventually you’ll fall back to sleep.

It was amazing how well this worked. Finally I had a secret weapon. The key was to realize when it’s happening. Then, resist the temptation to try to “wake up”. After all, there wasn’t anything to wake up from. I simply had to take deep breaths until I fell asleep.

My sleep paralyses lessened significantly when I moved to the States in 2009. For a few years I’d still get them a few times per year. My wife can now recognize when I’m in it — laying there helpless and whimpering — and gently soothes me with her hand on my chest until I either wake up fully or fall back to sleep.

I hope that this posts helps anybody who may be in the same place I was 15–20 years ago — suffering from sleep paralysis without knowing it. Recognizing it truly makes a difference. If you only found out about it now, go and read more about it. The more you practice the easier it becomes to manage it.

Just relax, breathe, and fall back to sleep.

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