It doesn't happen to everyone, but when it does you are left frightened, almost as if it was an other-worldly experience.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2019. It has since been updated.
Imagine going to sleep after a long hard day only to jolt awake suddenly. Your eyes are open but you can't move. You can't breathe no matter how much you try. Your limbs are frozen and you feel that something or someone is sitting on your chest. You might feel anxiety and helplessness when this happens. You could also feel that there is a presence lurking in the room and it wants to harm you. Sound familiar?
If you have been through this, you have experienced sleep paralysis. It can be a very scary experience if you have never experienced it before or are unaware of it. Some researchers even believe that it explains the nighttime alien and demon abduction stories of people. It happens when your eyes are open and you think you’re conscious completely after waking up suddenly.
Though frightening, it's not harmful. It passes within seconds or minutes. It can happen to people once or twice in their lifetime, but there are also those who experience it more regularly. NHS UK says that it commonly affects teenagers or young adults. However, it can happen to people of all ages.
It can feel like an other-worldly or out of body experience, but there is a medical explanation for it.
Sleep is divided into two phases - rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. During the first phase of the sleep cycle, you go through non-REM sleep. Your consciousness travels through three stages, and in each of them, you get deeper into sleep. Breathing becomes rhythmic and you're less likely to wake up, according to Wexner Medical Center.
After that phase, comes the REM sleep where dreaming takes place. The neurotransmitter glycine puts your body into a temporary stage of paralysis at this point. You will be able to move involuntary muscles, such as the diaphragm - which is responsible for breathing. Your limbs and other voluntary muscles will be frozen so that you don't try to act out the actions of your dreams.
When you wake up suddenly from REM sleep, the paralysis is still in place on your body even though you're conscious. You feel frozen and all the other scary symptoms show up. Your diaphragm, which has been regulating your breathing during sleep, is still working that way so your breathing is shallow. You might feel breathless as if something is pressing down your chest and stopping you from taking a lungful of air.
You could also experience hallucinations called hypnopompic hallucinations. You feel that the vivid dreams are happening to you in real life, especially if you were woken up from a nightmare.
You will come out of it in a few minutes but might continue feeling anxious and unsettled as if the things you experienced and saw have really happened to you.
Sleep paralysis has been associated with reasons like not getting enough sleep (sleep deprivation or insomnia), irregular sleeping patterns, jet lag, narcolepsy, a family history of sleep paralysis, and sleeping on your back.
Sleeping well (six to eight hours), having a fixed sleeping routine, a peaceful sleep environment, avoiding big meals, smoking, or drinking alcohol or caffeine before going to bed, and regular exercise can help fix this.
Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? Tell us about it.