Do you ever wake up in the middle of your sleep, helpless with the feeling of a creepy force sitting on your chest pulling you backwards? Your eyes are open, dark shapes are gathering around you, something has grabbed your feet, and you can’t move. You can’t even scream.
Is it actually as spooky as it appears? “Yes, but it is explainable,” says Kathleen Davis.
She has an answer for every daunting question about this condition. A New York based blogger, Kathy also works in the field of Psychiatry and runs a sleep center associated with the University of Rochester. We reached out to Kathleen to dig a little deeper about sleep paralysis.
1. Tell us something about yourself Kathy.
I started working as a nurse in 1991. I resumed my profession in 2011 and now I practice in the field of addiction medicine and psychiatry. I focus on histories and physicals for people who suffer from severe depression and undergo ECT (electro convulsive therapy).
I was married in 1992 and I’m a mother of three boys who are now aged 21, 19 and 15. I took 10 years off my career to home school them. Now they are in college and I’m back to work.
I have a large population of folks with chronic hepatitis C and that nudged me to write a book: Hepatitis C – Quick Start: A guide for the clinician.
2. Please brief us about sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak immediately after waking up.
It is a phenomenon, not a sleep disorder which occurs during the stage of Rapid eye movement sleep (REM). It is a condition where you are awake but your brain is still asleep in REM phase or in simple language, the brain is still dreaming.
85% of your dreams occur during REM stage,which happens to be the last phase of our sleep cycle. So here you are at the peak stage,where you should be in deep slumber, but your consciousness is awake while the other part of the brain which controls the dream center is still asleep.
You are paralyzed because your skeleton and voluntary muscles don’t respond while the involuntary functions, like the heart is working fine.
This causes a panic attack during sleep. It’s because of Amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls emotion, responds with panic. After which the brain sends signals across the body leading to sensations.
It can be accompanied with some vivid hallucinations.
3. Is it harmful?
Nothing will happen to you, you are not going to die even if you feel that something is burying you alive or you are being strangled. It is completely harmless. It can be explained with science and research.
4. How can we diagnose it?
It actually depends person to person and their history. Usually, a sleep study called Polysomnography, is used to diagnose sleep disorders.
They hook your head up with some electrodes to measure your brain waves.
5. How can people realize that they are actually experiencing a sleep paralysis episode?
If you look at the people who suffer from it, almost all the characteristics are same; they are usually young and may be going through hormonal changes. They are often college students or adults who are burning their nights working or studying and are under a lot of stress, they are prone to anxieties and are breaking the sleep cycle by developing irregular sleeping patterns.
Sometimes they aren’t sure whether it is a dream or reality. To be sure, try swallowing your saliva. If you can feel it going inside you’re surely awake.
6. How can we snap out of if we are in the moment?
Some people who suffer from it believe in chanting their God’s name until they get out of it, because their faith is important to them.
Some people are aware when they experience it so they try wiggle their toes and also nose.
To face it with ease, you primarily need to believe that it is an unusual complication that can be explained through science and not any spiritual means.
You need to find your own anchor to pull you out of that drain.
Some kids I know who face it on regular intervals write, “sleep paralysis” on their hand before they go to sleep so that whenever they wake up from it they know it was the same.
7. What precautions can we take?
- Don’t sleep on your back; try sleeping on your stomach so you don’t feel vulnerable that way.
- Don’t sleep during the hours when you know it usually occurs. REM sleep phase occurs during early morning, usually between 4-8am and that is when it’s likely to happen.
- Learning yoga and medication can help you reduce your stress levels and anxiety, which can again prevent the episode.
- And obviously make sure that your sleep hygiene is solid.
8. How can we explain it to the masses easily, as in, not in a complex scientific way?
I think the best way to understand it is to think of it as a hiccup, or just a overlapping of wakefulness and slumber. So if you think of somebody who sleepwalks i.e., they are sleeping but their body is moving.
Sleepwalking is like an opposite of sleep paralysis, here, your body is paralyzed but your mind is awake. So, it is still a phenomenon, nothing to worry about.
9. If it’s not supernatural then why do countries like Mexico call it “Dead body on top of me”?
The term “Dead body on top of me” is used because there is a sensation of suffocation, people feel this pressure on their chest, and their muscles tend to be paralyzed which makes them think that something is holding them down. They aren’t able to move due to which the Amygdala starts panicking and the mechanism follows.
10. What do you want to tell people who are experiencing it?
I encourage you to tell your colleagues, and your friends that if they ever experience this, they should know that it is just a phenomenon.
Though I know that what we gather out of it is horrifying but truly, it’s not a supernatural phenomenon or any crossover to another world or demon possession. It’s explainable.
People don’t want to talk about it, they are afraid that they are going to be labeled psychotic, they assume that their brain is separating from their spirit and that the spirit world is coming to them wanting them to die. It’s kind of a freaky. They think that some demon is going to rape them, or that they are being abducted by aliens. There are these unbelievably terrifying sensations and experiences that they, themselves are not sure about.
So they really need to know that if something absurd is happening to them, they need to convey it someone who is close to them.
People need to take the fear away, and for that they need to read about it. Visiting a doctor obviously helps and gathering information from experienced people like you did also works. Knowledge is power and if you know what is happening to you empowers you, you feel safe. When you know that its just a freaky projection your brains putting, you feel empowered.