Recently I have spoken to a number of people who suffer from sleep paralysis, which is when you are conscious, but your body is paralysed at the time. This occurs for some people when they “wake up” from sleep, but find they can’t move.
The reason behind the problem is not totally understood. What it does appear to relate to is some dysfunction between the awake state, and the paralysis that normally occurs while we are asleep (such as during REM sleep so that we don’t act out our dreams while we sleep). So, for example, a difficulty coming out of REM into the awake state.
It has the same characteristics as narcolepsy, with some experts distinguishing the two only by whether it occurs while you fall asleep (sleep onset)or when you are waking up. Wikipedia states that 30% – 50% of people who have been diagnosed with narcolepsy have experienced sleep paralysis.
I’ve also heard some evidence that it might relate to a previous trauma, though my questioning of people has not shown that explanation to be always the case, only in some cases.
The length of the paralysis varies. Luckily it often only lasts for a minute or two. But the paralysis can last longer.
It is generally extremely stressful for the person, as they feel trapped within their bodies and can’t communicate it to their partners to help them (by gently waking them up, for example) – if they have a partner there at the time.
A kind woman Wendy Buckingham shared with me that she has managed to make a noise, at the back of her throat, to communicate to her husband, so that he can gently help her to wake up.
She has contributed the following article to help readers of this blog with the problem.
This was a wonderful gesture, thank you Wendy.
So, here is Wendy’s story:
Sleep Paralysis Case Study
It’s mysterious; it’s exhausting and it’s scary. My first experience of it was when I was meditating and I must have dozed off. I became aware of everything around me but couldn’t come out of it into full body consciousness. I wished the phone would ring or someone would come in. Eventually of course, I did come out of it – I always do – but it left me wary of meditation for years.
Sleep paralysis has become more common for me over the years. Sometimes it happens often or even several times a night and then there might be a gap for months. Sometimes it can be prompted by a stuffy nose, other times by the way I am lying and a lot of the time none of those – it just happens.
The process takes two different scenarios.
The first is where I am dreaming and suddenly become aware that I am asleep and need to wake up. I can’t move and struggle. I have the thought of just relaxing into it again but that is terrifying. There then follow what feels like a life and death struggle to regain consciousness and when I do finally wake up my heart is pounding and I’m exhausted. And sometimes I seem to slip back into the paralysis so easily that the only solution is to get up and walk around for a bit.
The second scenario happens just as I am falling asleep. I become aware I am sinking into sleep and then again the panic and need to wake up again sets and I fight to stay conscious.
Over the years, I have learned to alert my husband as to when sleep paralysis is happening so he can gently wake me up.
He says I sometimes tremble, which could be the effort of trying to move. But mainly I have learned to make a moaning noise at the back of my throat to alert him. It’s a bit like a hum but from the back of the throat rather than the front.
Try it. Hum or moan from the back of your throat. When my husband hears this he gently shakes me saying my name. Sometimes it seems to take ages before I wake up even though I can hear him calling my name and I want him to shake me.
But I always do wake up, whether or not there is my husband to help me. Yet there is always the fear that I won’t and sink into something terrible which, I guess, is death and it is a fear of survival.
Can You Contribute?
If you are reading this and you have experience with sleep paralysis we would love to hear from you. Please enter your comments below.