After a full night of working on my Lauren Slater paper for my Lying, Cheating, and Stealing seminar, I stumbled into my dorm room at about 1 pm, ready for an epic afternoon nap. Not even bothering to change into pjs, I took the bare effort of tossing my boots and sliding into bed, with my contacts still in my eyes. I tossed and turned for a bit, having reached the point where I was too tired to fall asleep. Thoughts of how much my paper sucked and how I never wanted to get out of bed because eventually I’d have to be confronted by a terrible grade drifted through my head until I finally fell asleep.
At some point the dorm fire alarm sounded, and I knew I had to get up and go outside. With great difficulty I managed to muster open a single eyelid, and I could hear the trampling sounds of several people walking down the stairs near my room. The alarm was still ringing, and as I looked around the room through blurry vision, I realized that I could not physically lift my head. Panic started to settle in as I realized that it was not just my head that I could not move, but my arms and legs were completely limp and all my mental efforts to move were not being executed by my limbs. I was wide awake, but my body was not, and I was trapped inside of it for what felt like hours. After panically reciting a few prayers, thinking I was about to die, I managed to somehow put my mind back to sleep, and the next time I woke up, I could fully move again.
This wasn’t the first time that I had experienced sleep paralysis. I could recall experiencing a similar sensation my senior fall of high school, but at the time I just assumed it was either a very lucid nightmare or just something I was mentally conjuring up before I’d actually wake up. It wasn’t until this horrifying fire alarm experience that I realized this “dream about being paralyzed” was actually happening and wasn’t a dream at all.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is when your mind is in an active state of consciousness, but your body is still in a state of atonia, so you can’t physically move or even speak. Before it was recognized as a medical condition, cultures from East Asia to Africa to Japan to Europe found ways to attribute this occurrence to demonic forces pressing upon the body during sleep. In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, references to incubus and succubus, various demons that would lie on top of humans, were made and possibly formed the basis of some of the accusations made during the Salem Witch Trials. Actually, a recent study found that 90% of Mexican adolescents interviewed described sleep paralysis as a “dead body climbed on top of me.”
Sleep paralysis really isn’t as scary as all that, but in the moment of experiencing total incapacitation, it is truly horrifying. Before I knew what it was, I would wake up shivering and crying, and I would have to turn on the lights and watch TV or read before I could fall back asleep. Fortunately, aside from the panic factor, there really is nothing harmful about sleep paralysis, and its worst it has some distant link to narcolepsy.
Sleep paralysis usually occurs as you fall asleep or as you wake up from sleeping. The causes vary, but most often it can be attributed to loss of sleep/changes in sleep patterns, stress, sleeping on your back, underlying mood disorders, narcolepsy, and even substance abuse. For me, I’ve usually found that it occurs either during moments of high stress or if I’m laying on my back while napping in the middle of the afternoon. The times it occurred most frequently were during my senior year of high school, junior and senior year of college, and my first year of law school, all of which were high-stress periods. Very few formal studies exist on the frequency of the occurrence of sleep paralysis among college students, but my bet is that it can get pretty high around exam time and most people don’t recognize what it is.
How to treat it:
There is no real way to treat sleep paralysis, but I’ve found that just having an awareness of what it is has helped reduce the panic factor when it does happen. At this point it’s been ingrained in my head that this is just a weird harmless thing like the hiccups, and I know to talk myself into going back to sleep when it happens. Initially, I’d get thrown into major panic mode, which only made the sleep paralysis worse. The key is to finding a way to relax so that your mind can go back to sleep and re-awake with your body.