Sleep paralysis sounds like the stuff of urban legend or American Horror Story. In the middle of the night, you feel the terrifying sensation that someone is pressing down on your chest, standing at the doorway, or lying next to you in bed—but you’re utterly unable to move. You’re trapped. Paralyzed in a disturbing state between sleep and consciousness, you know what’s happening, and you know you just need to wake up for it to end—you’re trying to wake up—but you can’t. Your eyes may even be open, and you may even feel like you are awake, but you can’t make the paralysis end of your own accord. You just have to wait for it to be over.
As scary as it sounds, it’s scarier to experience, and as strange as it sounds, it’s not the stuff of urban legend or a horror movie—it’s surprisingly common. So common, in fact, that in researching this story we discovered four people at our very own offices who suffer from it, one of whom was willing to share her story with us. Keep scrolling to read what it’s like to actually have sleep paralysis.
First, some fascinating background on sleep paralysis. To get some insight on the strange condition, we spoke to a scientific researcher with the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, James A. Cheyne, whose expertise is sleep paralysis and who has authored several published papers on the topic. When we asked if there is a known first documented case of sleep paralysis, he explained that sleep paralysis has been around for centuries. “Accounts of what seem very clearly sleep paralysis experience are as old as (and probably much older than) written records,” he said. “Many, if not all, ancient cultures have accounts of night demons or creatures assaulting people at night while they are paralyzed and helpless. The original meaning of ‘nightmare’ was of a night creature that attacked people during the night. It was only in the 20th century that 'nightmare’ came to be consistently used to refer to any bad dream.”
So what exactly happens during an episode? In sleep paralysis, individuals are conscious of their surroundings but unable to move, and most often describe a “sensed presence,” feelings of pressure on the body, and auditory and visual sensations, like voices in the ear, sounds (such as footsteps or tapping), or a shadowy figure moving across the room. Scientifically, sleep paralysis is described as a conscious state of involuntary immobility, and an episode may last for a few seconds or several minutes.
The sensed presence is most often ominous, predatory, and threatening. Some of the time it is “just there,” and other times it is associated with movement and approach, like coming up the stairs, entering the room, approaching the bed, and climbing onto it. Feeling pressure on the mattress as the presence climbs onto the bed is most commonly reported. The majority of people who report sleep paralysis describe feeling fear and, if they cannot wake themselves up, being in danger—the feeling that the presence has evil intent. In fact, many report “fear” as not being a strong enough word to describe it, but rather overwhelming terror and horrific fear. Some describe a physical assault from the intruder, anywhere from feeling pressure on their chest to the sensation of someone sitting on their chest, holding them down, and choking them. The experience is described as “vivid” and unlike any fear experienced in the “real world.”
It is difficult to get an accurate sense of just how many people suffer from sleep paralysis because of varying degrees of cultural knowledge, along with fears of stigma. In one research paper published by Cheyne, of 870 students who reported at least one experience of sleep paralysis in their life, only 45 percent reported ever having spoken to someone about it (mostly all friends or family)—and only two reported ever having spoken to a doctor. Many voluntarily reported (i.e., without being asked directly) that they were afraid of being considered “weird” if they spoke about it, and several others also reported that as the exact reaction they received upon revealing their experience to a friend or family member. In the paper, Cheyne wrote that many of the individuals believed their experiences were unique and “expressed considerable relief upon discovering this was a known phenomenon” (which is exactly what we heard from the person we spoke to, as you’ll read below). Given the disinclination to make one’s experience public for fear of judgment, Cheyne wrote that this contributes to the underreporting of sleep paralysis and to the absence of wide knowledge or close study of it within our culture.
“How common it is is not as straightforward a question as it may seem,” he said. “It depends on the age and culture/subculture of the group being surveyed. In cultures where this phenomenon is well known, like Japan, or in Canada in Newfoundland, rates of 60% or higher may be obtained. In most North American samples, reported rates are much lower and very variable. A rough estimate for North America might be about 25% for having at least one elementary episode in a lifetime.” In a nutshell, the more cultural knowledge there is of a condition, the more it gets reported and diagnosed.
So why is there such a high cultural knowledge of sleep paralysis in Japan and elsewhere but not stateside? Chayne said it’s an interesting historical and anthropological question that has more to do with when or why North American cultures lost awareness of it somewhere in history. “I suspect the question is why did cultural knowledge become lost among mainstream Europeans?” he said. “Because it is well known in most (perhaps all) traditional cultures. My guess is that it has something to do with the Enlightenment.”
As for what incites an episode, Cheyne told us there is evidence that it is associated with a minor anomaly in the brain’s regulation of the onset and offset of REM sleep. “Sleep paralysis is fairly clearly an anomalous REM phenomenon whereby people enter REM directly from waking rather than after a period of sleep. There is some evidence—but no very good studies yet—of a genetic link,” he said.
When we asked if sleep paralysis is associated with other health issues, Cheyne said it seems to be a fairly isolated phenomenon in the majority of cases, but that people experiencing narcolepsy are especially prone to it. It typically has an adolescent onset (about 17), but a first episode can occur at any age. As for triggers, Cheyne said anecdotal evidence suggests stress and irregular or disruptive sleep patterns seem to exacerbate episodes. “However, for many the episodes come and go without any obvious trigger,” he said.
Keep scrolling to read our Q&A with our colleague who suffers from sleep paralysis.
Tell us about your first-ever experience with sleep paralysis.
“I’ve never been told by a doctor that I have sleep paralysis. Which is why I don’t really talk about it as much. But I remember having it for the first time when I was younger, at my aunt’s house. You are essentially paralyzed but also slightly awake, so it’s very frightening, to feel like you can’t move and someone is in the room. It’s very, very scary. So I remember it happening for the first time, and I felt someone sitting on my bed. I couldn’t move, and I was trying to open my eyes and sit up, and it took at least a minute to actually be able to. I don’t remember it happening that much when I was in high school, but in college it kind of kicked back in and happened all the time. I’ve read that it can happen more currently when you’re drinking alcohol. I don’t know if it’s something that happens neurologically, but I noticed it happened a lot more in college, when, of course, you’re drinking more alcohol. I remember everything from someone whispering in my ear, to someone sitting on my bed. … I sound like I’m like crazy. Like 'there are voices.’”
No, you don’t! You don’t sound crazy. It simply sounds terrifying.
“But yeah, so when it was happening more frequently in college, that was when I started to be like, What the heck is going on? What is this? This seems really abnormal. So I did some googling and came across sleep paralysis. There are actually paintings that are dedicated to sleep paralysis from centuries ago. A man sleeping with a demon standing over his bed. It was actually really comforting, to know that it was something that actually happens and I wasn’t just having really intense nightmares, feeling like I was awake and couldn’t move.”
You said before we began talking that you had an episode just this week. What happened?
“I was sleeping; I want to say it was around 4 a.m. when it happened. It’s something that’s happened before, where I’ll all of a sudden hear footsteps on my floor, and I have wood floors, so it sounds like wood cracking. But my eyes were open and I couldn’t move. It took maybe—it’s hard to really know how long it is before you can actually move once you’re trying to—but it felt like maybe 15 or 20 seconds until I came out of it. It was not enjoyable.”
So how old were you when you noticed it for the first time at your aunt’s house?
“I think I was around 10 years old. I just felt weight sit down next to me on the bed, and as a kid … I was terrified. It was traumatizing. But I remember the feeling of not being able to move, and that was really, really strange. It feels weird to be self-diagnosing it. … It’s funny to talk about it because I feel like I sound like a crazy person in court saying they heard voices.”
That’s exactly what the researcher we spoke to said, that people don’t talk about it because they’re afraid they’ll sound weird or crazy. It makes sense. But all I feel right now is sympathy for how scary it sounds. You don’t sound crazy at all.
“It was a lot harder when it was happening more frequently, because I would have the incident and then I would wake up and come out of it, and then when I would fall back asleep, it would happen again, and it would happen several times in a row. To the point where I’d be like, I don’t want to fall asleep. And that was really frustrating, because it was exhausting. It wasn’t just an isolated incident in one night; it would be recurring. The pocket of time when it was happening the most frequently, and most dense number of occurrences, was definitely college. The various things I would feel are sitting down on the bed, feeling like someone is breathing in my ear, footsteps. I remember once it was someone running toward my bed. That was really scary. And a door opening.”
Wow. When you finally break out of the paralysis, is your heart pounding?
“Yes. Very much so. And I’m usually pretty sweaty.”
So you talked about alcohol. Have you noticed a pattern between any other triggers?
“I don’t know. Sometimes I’ve noticed if I eat late at night, my sleep seems to be altered. Honestly I’ve really only noticed a trigger if I’ve been drinking.”
Does it make you fear drinking?
“Not now, because it’s just not happening as much as it was in college. But in college, yes. It made me feel like I was doing something wrong to my brain, like it might be my fault.”
Have you ever met anyone else with it?
Have you talked to anyone in your family about it?
“I actually have not.”
Would you ever see a sleep doctor about it?
“I would. It just … doesn’t really affect my day-to-day life that much, so I haven’t.”
To conclude, we did ask Cheyne if you can ever completely get rid of sleep paralysis, and he had this to say: “It very rarely lasts a lifetime. Most common are mild once-in-a-lifetime episodes involving little more than a brief period of paralysis when falling asleep. Some people may have it off and on for years with terrifying hallucinations until one day they realize that they have not had an episode in decades and had almost forgotten that it was ever a problem. It is a remarkably variable phenomenon.”
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