Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, being fully conscious, then realizing you can’t move a muscle. Your chest tightens and it gets hard to breathe. You start hallucinating and a dark figure begins moving towards you. You try to scream for help, but you can’t.
Are you dying?
Are you dreaming?
Then, all of a sudden, you can move again. That terrifying apparition is gone and you can breathe normally. Believe it or not, experiences like these are fairly common. This is a medical condition called sleep paralysis and about 8% of the population has experienced some variation of it in their lives. While this can be absolutely terrifying, scientists say it isn’t dangerous. Phew.
People used to think that this paralysis was caused by supernatural beings like demons holding people down while they sleep. Since hallucinations are fairly common with this condition, it’s understandable that people would think the thing they saw was what was stopping them from moving. But there’s actually a very scientific, not-so-supernatural explanation for why some people wake up and can’t move.
When we sleep, we experience cycles of REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Rapid eye movement sleep is when your eyes move quickly from one side to the other. This is the time of night when parts of your brain like the thalamus and the amygdala are most active. Usually, people wake up when their brains are in the non-REM phase, but sometimes you wake up when you’re still in REM sleep. This is what prompts sleep paralysis.
But, while all this might sound really scary, researchers recently found that 20% of people who experience sleep paralysis on a regular basis actually find it pleasant! Since it’s not dangerous, they relax and just let it happen.
Scientists are also investigating whether there’s a genetic link to this condition. Twin studies have pointed towards yes, but there’s still more research to be done. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for this, but doctors suggest regulating your sleep schedule and avoiding alcohol and drugs before bed. Sleeping on your back also contributes to the problem, so try a different position. In serious cases, an antidepressant may be prescribed, but this condition isn’t permanent or dangerous.