What does sleep paralysis feel like? It’s like trying to explain what it’s like to be stoned to someone who’s never smoked pot. What it’s like to be drunk to someone who’s never taken a single sip. What it’s like to be buried alive to some who’s never, um… died.
I’m not exaggerating here. Sleep paralysis is the closest feeling I can imagine to being buried alive. Or if not buried, then locked in a tiny space with no escape. Pushing as hard and screaming as loud as you can makes no difference because you’re simply incapable of pushing, screaming… even whispering.
I first experienced sleep paralysis in my late teens. Apparently, this is common. This particular sleep disorder is most likely to affect teenagers and young adults. Mine continued into my 20s, and although the instances have become less frequent as I’ve gotten older, it still happens now and again.
Officially, it’s described as “a feeling of being conscious but unable to move,” and it can happen when falling asleep (hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis) or when waking up (hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis).
Centuries ago, explanations for sleep paralysis were a lot more exciting. Almost every culture has attributed the mysterious disorder and the feelings of terror it brings to an evil presence of some sort, from alien abductors to the old hag in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The reality is far more pedestrian. Following years of research, the conclusion is that — in most cases — sleep paralysis is simply a sign that your body isn’t progressing smoothly from one stage of sleep to the next.
This is true (for me, it always happened when I was falling asleep), but it doesn’t go any way toward describing what that actually feels like. It’s honestly the most frightening experience I’ve ever had. Imagine being trapped between sleep and wakefulness. You’re not asleep, but you’re not fully awake, either. Only your mind is awake, but your brain isn’t able to send the signals to your body to tell it to move or to speak.
It can last for a few seconds or several minutes. But when you’re paralyzed, time stands still. I have no idea whether it lasts for 17 seconds or seven minutes. It’s like an alternative universe, where time and space and everything else we rely on in real life counts for jack shit.
And then there are the hallucinations, which are common during sleep paralysis. Other sufferers have described insects, reptiles or other indistinguishable creatures crawling toward them. For me, it’s always the same: shadowy beings. They’re not within touching distance, but they’re inching toward me, and, of course, I’m unable to defend myself.
I’ve done my research. I know sleep paralysis is harmless and has a simple chemical explanation. Basically, the mechanism that causes muscles to relax during sleep temporarily remains relaxed (read: frozen) after you’ve woken up or begin to relax before you’ve fallen asleep.
I’ve never sought medical help for my sleep paralysis, mainly because it doesn’t affect my life enough for me to need to take that step. When my life became more stable in my late 20s, my episodes were definitely less frequent. Improving the quality of sleep helps, for sure. I’ve managed to link my sleep paralysis episodes to times when I wasn’t keeping a regular sleep routine or enjoying a restful sleeping environment.
By far, the worst thing about sleep paralysis is that when it happens, it’s so powerful that I can’t engage my rational brain and remind myself I’m not being harmed. When I wake up the next morning, I can look back and think, oh, that wasn’t so bad. It was just sleep paralysis rearing its ugly head again. It’s the same way a nightmare doesn’t seem half as scary when you recall it during daylight hours. But when I’m in the moment, paralyzed by the disorder and further paralyzed by fear, I don’t have the ability to comfort myself. For those few seconds, I’m trapped, helpless and absolutely terrified.
For more information on sleep paralysis, visit The Sleep Paralysis Project.