'It's terrifying and exhausting' - One woman shares her experience with sleep paralysis

sleep paralysis
What is sleep paralysis?Getty Images

'It's terrifying and exhausting,' describes Charlotte Lewis, who, aged 31, has been battling with sleep paralysis for most of her life. 'I feel this sense of falling and then realise I’m paralysed and can’t move my body; it feels as though sleep is pulling me under, and it’s frightening, like I'm being dragged under water or about to die or suffocate, usually accompanied by a pressure on my chest.'

Unfortunately, many people will relate to Charlotte's experience. A sleep condition that affects 7-50% of the population at some stage in their life, for the most part, sleep paralysis has gone somewhat under the radar, with those affected struggling to understand its causes, effects and grappling with the condition without proper treatment or diagnosis.

What is sleep paralysis?

'This is a known situation that can occur when your body becomes atonic, meaning briefly paralysed, usually when just coming out of sleep,' explains Dr. Michael Breus, Ph.D., and founder of TheSleepDoctor.com.

'Sleep paralysis occurs when aspects of REM sleep (a stage of sleep linked to dreaming) continue even after a person wakes up,' he adds. 'Although the sleeper is fully conscious, the eye movements, breathing patterns, heart rate, and muscle paralysis characteristic of REM sleep continue for a few seconds to several minutes.'

What happens when you experience sleep paralysis?

During a period of sleep paralysis, the body is completely paralysed, except for the lungs, heart and eyes. 'You can breathe and see, but not much else,' adds Dr. Breus. 'It's very scary and can last up to 90 seconds.'

Charlotte describes the feeling as her brain being awake while her body is asleep. 'I can still hear real noises around me when I go into sleep paralysis. For example, I once fell asleep with the radio on and could still hear it, but couldn’t move my body.'

She can also experience hallucinations. 'I remember one particularly terrifying time when I was lying on my side facing my wall when I went into sleep paralysis, and I heard someone turn my door handle, walk into my room, and stand by my bed breathing heavily. I was stuck in that position, not able to move or scream, and it felt completely real. No matter many times I’ve experienced it, it is still so scary!'

She adds: 'I have to fight against it and it feels as though it takes a huge amount of energy and effort to break free. Sometimes although I can’t move I can just about wiggle my fingers and toes and this can help me break out of the paralysis. When I finally break out of it it feels like coming up for air and there’s a huge sense of relief.'

What triggers sleep paralysis?

'Experts believe that, for most people, isolated experiences of sleep paralysis are caused by sleep deprivation,' says Dr Breus. The catch-22 is that those who do not get enough sleep, or whose sleep schedules are disturbed (like shift workers), are more likely to experience it. Charlotte agrees that it's often after a long day when her brain is still very active, when she's more likely to experience sleep paralysis.

Mental health conditions and sleep disorders could also play a role, suggests Dr Breus, who says that those with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder could be more susceptible. 'Individuals with sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, circadian rhythm sleep disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea, may also experience sleep paralysis.'

'It is also linked to the use of certain substances,' he adds. 'Many people use medications and other substances that suppress REM sleep, like alcohol, amphetamines, and antidepressants. If these medications are stopped abruptly, a sleeper may experience a sudden increase in REM sleep that could trigger an episode of sleep paralysis,' he adds.

How long does sleep paralysis last for?

Charlotte recalls having sleep paralysis for as long as she can remember, with periods in her life, particularly during her teens, being more frequent than others. 'I didn’t know what it was at first, but I was often scared to fall asleep and suffered with terrible insomnia as a result,' she adds.

'It was a relief when I was finally able to describe the experience to my mum (who also suffers with sleep paralysis) and have some reassurance that other people go through this thing too.'

Is it possible to get rid of sleep paralysis?

According to Medical News, most of us could experience sleep paralysis at least once in our lives. Some may never experience it, others will have episodes that could be triggered at various stages in their lives.

As a term still in its nascent, science is only beginning to scratch the surface of this sleep condition and while there are several drugs that may be used to treat sleep paralysis, says Dr Breus, there is limited evidence about the benefit of medication.

That said, there are alternative routes that you can take to prevent an episode – starting with improving your sleep hygiene. Below, Dr Breus offers his expert advice:

Stick to a bedtime

Aim to maintain a consistent time for going to bed and waking up throughout the week, including weekends.

Watch the caffeine

Reduce your intake of caffeine before bed, as it can make it difficult to fall asleep and negatively affect your sleep quality.

Eat dinner early

Avoid eating a large meal before going to sleep. If you are hungry around bedtime, try a light snack instead.

Wind down before bed

Schedule some relaxing activities before bed that can help you slow down and prepare for sleep. Consider a hot bath, reading a book or listening to soft music.

Try talk therapy

People with sleep paralysis may benefit from talking to a professional who can help reduce the fear and anxiety caused by episodes. Professionals can also address any underlying mental health conditions and provide more structured therapy that focuses on improving sleep habits as well as thoughts and behaviours.

Learning to manage it has been crucial for Charlotte over the years. 'Now I try to calm my busy brain before bed as much as possible, sometimes by distracting myself from my worries and anxieties (usually by reading), or trying to slow down my thinking by using a guided meditation on YouTube or Headspace, or ASMR,' she concludes.

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