What it's like to deal with sleep paralysis

With the alarm going off, Floriane was wide awake ready for a new day.

But as she tried to get out of bed, she realised she couldn’t move at all.

‘It honestly was really scary,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I was in bed lying on my back. At first I just thought I was a bit numb from not having moved all night, then I quickly realised that my mind was fully awake but I couldn’t move my body.

‘It felt like I was pinned down on my bed with something heavy pressing on my chest and stomach.’

This was the first time she’d ever experienced sleep paralysis – a problem that affects around 8% of the population.

It means your brain is active but your body cannot move and usually happens when you are waking up or falling asleep.

Samantha Briscoe, Lead Clinical Physiologist at London Bridge Hospital (part of HCA UK) explains: ‘During a phase of sleep called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep our body enters a state of paralysis called atonia. 

‘Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain is awake but the body is in this state of atonia or paralysis for a brief time; it can occur on waking or at the onset of sleep.  The brain is awake but one would be unable to move or speak. 

‘It is often associated with persistent dream imagery and people experiencing an episode report things such things as feeling as if someone is the room with them or someone is pushing down on their chest and it can be quite a frightening experience.’

Floriane started experiencing it in March last year, but others have been living with sleep paralysis for much longer, going through periods where it stops but finding it always comes back.

Chris had his first episode when he was 15 and has had many terrifying instances over the years.

He explains: ‘It was quite scary the first couple of times it happened. I think there are Nordic folk tales about this being the ‘night witch’, who comes into your room and sits on top of you.

‘Very rarely, I am still in a dream state when I ‘wake’ and I have a combination of paralysis and almost like hallucinations.

‘The worst instance of this was when I once woke being unable to move, and felt as though I was being held down while lying on my front. In my mind, I was dragged from my bed by my feet and then jumped across the room to turn the bedroom light on.

‘When I hit the switch, I then actually ‘woke’ up – still in bed, in the dark. It felt like a very real experience and took me a while to understand what had just happened. I was around 17 when this happened.’

Doctors aren’t really sure why sleep paralysis happens, which makes it difficult to offer any sort of treatment, but often people can recognise triggers.

Physiologist Samantha Briscoe adds: ‘It can be linked with sleep deprivation, circadian rhythm disruptions and psychological stress or anxiety disorders; it is likely we will all experience sleep paralysis at least once in our lives. 

‘Sleep paralysis forms part of the symptom tetrad of a sleep disorder called Narcolepsy or can occur regularly on its own, called idiopathic or isolated sleep paralysis.’

When Ciara first experienced it eight years ago, she was in the middle of a relationship breakdown and it was a difficult time in her life.

She says: ‘I was going through a spectacularly awful breakup (my boyfriend at the time, whom I lived with, cheated) and I had moved out of our flat to the opposite side of London. At the same time I was writing my dissertation for my Master’s degree, working 45+ hours a week in a pub and flat-hunting, to add insult to injury.

‘When it happened, I was terrified. I tried to move and tried to scream, even tried to open my eyes – but I couldn’t do anything to help myself get out of it. I was literally petrified and completely clueless.

‘It was like my dream was happening in front of me, but I was awake, but my body was paralysed, so I couldn’t escape it. Like a living hell.’

Since then, she has recognised that episodes happen when she is on the verge of burning out.

Similarly, Floriane recognises that stress if the biggest trigger for her.

She adds: ‘The pressure builds up and I’ll experience sleep paralysis on a regular basis for a couple of weeks then it’s like it resets and it doesn’t happen again for a while. 

‘However it also sometimes happens randomly when I have a day off and I think I’m going to be able to enjoy a nice lay-in or have a nap in the middle of the day.  I think that in this instance my body isn’t use to that type of release and it gets confused.’

Recognising those triggers can help but with stress, all you can do is prepare yourself with the knowledge an episode could happen.

Samantha Briscoe adds: ‘The best way to manage sleep paralysis is to ensure you get enough good quality sleep; aiming to get six to eight hours of sleep and to have a regular bedtime and waketime in the morning. 

‘If episodes are stress or anxiety-related then seek advice and treatment from your GP to manage these underlying conditions and the sleep paralysis should resolve.

‘The most important step in treating sleep paralysis is to speak to a specialist to identify and treat any underlying problems that may be contributing to events.  A focus on good sleep hygiene is vital to reduce episodes due to the strong link with poor and disrupted sleep. 

‘Some medications are available to treat sleep paralysis by suppressing REM sleep; these medications can have side effects and can produce a rebound effect once they are stopped, so it is important that all other avenues are explored first.’

For Chris, nothing has helped to reduce the episodes of sleep paralysis over the years but he has found he is able to force himself out of them when they do happen.

He says: ‘I haven’t really found anything that helps as it doesn’t always happen in line with what I know to be my triggers.

‘I do manage to ‘break’ the paralysis by ‘jolting’ myself awake, most often by trying to force my shoulders forward. Sometimes it takes a couple of jolts for me to awake, which can get scary if it doesn’t work after the first couple of times.

‘Sometimes I can go months without experiencing it, but when I am having episodes I can have up to four to five instances of paralysis in a single night.’

Floriane adds that it can be very difficult as it’s hard to predict and it means she ends up running late.

She explains: ‘If I’m having a nap, I make sure to have a timer set so I’m not asleep for longer than 25 minutes at a time, even if I have to reset it. Anything longer than that my body gets really confused and it can trigger sleep paralysis. 

‘When it comes to sleeping at night, there aren’t really many things that help. I just make sure I have plenty of alarms set up an hour and a half to two hours before I have to actually be up (three hours if I know I’ve been experiencing it recently). It’s very tiring but it helps me (and reassures me) make sure I’ll be awake by a certain time. 

‘I have an alarm every 15 minutes (+ snooze…) – For example, if I had to be up at 8:30am, my alarms would start at 5:30, 5:45, 6, 6:15… until 8:30 during a bad period.’

After eight years dealing with sleep paralysis, Ciara has found some things that can help her.

She explains: ‘I read up a lot about it – for me, knowing how something works helps to solve a problem. So I did some research on techniques to deal with it in real-time.

‘There’s the obvious trying to avoid stress (millennial living and working in London, lol, ok), cutting down on caffeine, and stop burning the candle at both ends.

‘But I’ve now trained myself to know when it’s happening – after the first few moments of ‘WTF’ terror and panic when you wake up in your mind, but nowhere else – I read an article that said to start trying to pull yourself out of it by beginning with wiggling your fingertips and toes. Then gradually your fingers, feet, hands, wrists and the rest follows.

‘It took a few years, but now I panic a lot less as if it happens I almost immediately think ‘ah, hello, i know this’, and do the wiggly technique.’

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch at [email protected]

Source: Read Full Article