It may sound like something out of a horror film, but it’s actually part of human sleeping patterns. 30% of all adults will experience sleep paralysis in their lifetime, one Stylist writer explains what to expect.
One night in 2015, I had just rolled in from an all-nighter in Birmingham with one of my best pals from university. We’d spent the entire night partying in the gay quarter of the city, and after a few minor dramas and a dodgy takeaway, we staggered back to the flat as the sun was rising.
I immediately collapsed onto her sofa bed, desperately craving sleep. I’d worked a full day at my rubbish post-university temp job and then suffered the peak-time voyage through Sussex, London and the Midlands to make it to my mates by early evening. But the night out had been worth it.
It could’ve been an hour, or a few seconds later after I initially crashed out when my eyes snapped open again. I was lying on my side, yet I could not move a muscle of my body. I could just about see the dregs of sunlight bleeding through the curtains on the other side of the room, but not much else.
Before long I could feel an odd pressure on my back, as if there was someone behind me trying to push me off the sofa bed. But I could do nothing, no matter how hard I tried. Although my consciousness was screaming that there was someone there with me, all I could do was wait in horror to see what would happen next. Mercifully, I came to in the end, and there was no one in the room to be found – I checked very thoroughly.
After some frantic googling in the morning – including asking the internet at large if I was being haunted – I came across the term sleep paralysis. It’s the inability to move while sleeping, but it unfortunately can happen while you are in the process of falling asleep or waking up.
So how common is sleep paralysis? According to research, 8% of adults experience this as a recurrent condition, and about 30% of all adults will experience at least one episode during their lifetime. After all, it’s a typical feature of human sleeping patterns. So even if you haven’t suffered from it before, it’s definitely worth knowing what it is, and how to deal with it.
What seems to happen is that the “normal REM muscle atonia” – the paralysis that our muscles encounter while asleep so we don’t act out our dreams in real life – intrudes into wakefulness, according to Dr Kat Lederle, a sleep science and therapy expert and head of sleep clinic Somnia.
“It’s a bit like your brain is awake but your body is not ready to move yet,” she adds. “For many people, this temporary inability to move is a frightening experience because you’re fully aware that it’s happening. You might feel that something or someone is present in the room, weighing down on your chest and making breathing difficult.”
Other people who suffer from sleep paralysis have reported seeing a figure or some form of intruder during an episode. These hallucinations are a result of certain areas of your brain being active, and using cultural context – like horror movies and stories – to try and make sense of what is going on.
In 2018, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House explored sleep paralysis through one of its lead characters. Throughout her life, Nell (Victoria Pedretti) would wake up frozen, unable to move a muscle, while a ghostly figure – who she dubs “The Bent Neck Lady” – watches her in her bed. It’s terrifying, and Pedretti skilfully articulates the horror that those of us suffering from it feel IRL.
Since that night in Birmingham, I’ve had sporadic episodes of sleep paralysis – perhaps a few every six months, and they normally cluster when I’m stressed or sleep deprived (which, I guess, explains my big intro to the disorder after an all-nighter).
For me, an episode can also feel a lot like an extension of the anxiety I can sometimes feel in my waking hours – being stuck in one thought process and being unable to pull yourself out of it, and trying desperately not to panic about this lack of control. Except, of course, you have the charming added physical side effects of not being able to move while you go through this.
I was mildly epileptic as a child, and sleep paralysis episodes can also remind me of the fits I suffered from, in that you no longer have any control over your own body, even if for a small period of time. You’re somehow suspended between being awake and asleep, between being at peace and being in control.
“By learning more about sleep paralysis, this can help to lower the anxiety. It does not make it a nice experience, but knowing what is happening will make it less frightening,” Dr Lederle says. And I can honestly say she’s right.
Five years later, when these episodes occur they are very rarely as intense or feel as long – that said, according to Sleepfoundation.org they can last between a few seconds to twenty minutes. Now that I’m aware of what’s going on and that nothing can hurt me during an episode, the experience is much less stressful and traumatic.
It’s also good to know what triggers sleep paralysis, so you can moderate your lifestyle to make an episode less likely. “Sleep deprivation and other poor sleep health habits, stress and high consumption of alcohol are among the usual suspects when looking for triggers for sleep paralysis,” Dr Lederle says.
“There also seems to be a genetic component to it; if a relative has it you’re more likely than the average person to also get it.”
If you’re experiencing sleep paralysis episodes more often than you’d like, there are treatment options available. “It will depend on what causes your sleep paralysis,” Dr Lederle says. “Usually it’s a combination of pharmacological and behavioural strategies, including behavioural change therapies and even medication.
“Adopting healthy sleep habits and learning to notice when you are stressed and lowering the stress, can help to minimise the occurrence of sleep paralysis.”
So if you encounter this particular demon – visible or invisible – between your waking and slumbering hours, worry not. Sleep may be a complicated issue but with the right information and support, you can establish healthy practices in your waking hours and get the shut-eye you deserve at night.