The condition regularly affects about 6% of us.
“I wake up absolutely terrified with a feeling that something or someone bad is coming towards me and I can’t move or scream.” Laura, 26, has been experiencing sleep paralysis for as long as she can remember, and tells me it has always been extremely frightening.
The condition, which affects an estimated 6% of people around the world, is the sensation of being conscious but unable to move (some say it feels like being held down, or ‘trapped in your own head’), usually accompanied by a feeling of fear or dread.
“The more I panic, the longer it lasts,” Laura says.
It would happen to me quite often, probably three or four times a month on average. I’m able to calm myself more quickly now because it’s such a common occurrence and I know it’s not actually real.
Some people may experience sleep paralysis once or twice in their lives, while others like Laura go through it regularly – but what does it mean, and why does it happen?
First things first, there’s no need to worry, because according to Deirdre McSwiney of the Mater Private Sleep Disorders Clinic, sleep paralysis is not a sign of anything untoward happening with you.
We all go through several different ‘stages’ of sleep over the course of a night – sleep paralysis occurs during the REM sleep stage, when you’re off dreaming about Jamie Dornan tap-dancing on your Leaving Cert English exam, or whatever it is that your brain has in store for you that night.
“In that stage of sleep, while all of these magnificent pictures are going on in your head, your body is actually paralysed,” says Deirdre. “It’s essentially Mother Nature’s way of protecting us from acting out our dreams.”
It’s natural to wake up a little in between the stages of sleep – but in cases of sleep paralysis, while the brain wakes up, the body doesn’t.
“The brain has woken up, so you’re completely aware, but you try to move and nothing happens for you,” says Deirdre. “And this can be utterly frightening for people.”
The sensation of paralysis usually wears off after a few minutes – but to hasten it along, researcher Baland Jalal of the University of Cambridge recommends reminding yourself that there is no real reason to be afraid, focusing on something other than the paralysis, and trying to relax your muscles instead of moving.
The cause of sleep paralysis can vary from person to person. Drug abuse and misuse can be a factor, and dehydration definitely is, but Deirdre says that with most people it’s down to good old sleep deprivation.
Have a little think about the nights that you’ve experienced sleep paralysis. Were you jet lagged? Were you up all night with your kid (or on the razz), then trying to get to work on time the next day?
Once you figure out a pattern, you can start practicing good sleep hygiene to better your chances of having an undisturbed night’s kip. Deirdre advises keeping your schedule as regular as you can, and also waking up at the same time every morning (yep, even on weekends).
Something that is also royally messing up our sleep is being on our phones and laptops all the time – ideally, we should be switching off an hour or two before heading to bed.
“I usually advise for younger people to take a two-hour gap between coming o screens and bedtime,” Deirdre says. “For an older age group, it’s an hour and a half.”
As inconvenient as that may seem, properly setting yourself up for a bit of shut-eye is your greatest weapon in the fight against sleep paralysis. So set a bedtime, turn off the phone, and (hopefully) enjoy an undisturbed night’s sleep.
Get the latest news, hottest trends & biggest competitions to your inbox.