Sleep paralysis - Help! I’m awake and I can’t move

by Americare Respiratory Services

Has this ever happened to you?

When we are asleep, the brain shuts down part of our nervous system so that we do not act out our dreams.  We are essentially in a state of paralysis while sleeping, but unaware that we can’t move.  The ability to move is restored before we completely wake up, so it’s like it never happened.  We simply wake up and go about our day.

Sleep paralysis becomes scary when your mind wakes up but your body does not.  You are lying on your back, and you suddenly realize you can’t move.  This can happen when you are transitioning in or out of REM cycle.  Your eyes open. A feeling of being trapped, crushed, or stuck overwhelms you.  You might try to speak or scream, but nothing comes out. You desperately try to move your arm or leg, but can’t.  You might eventually wake up gasping for air. 

For some people, it gets worse.  Many people sense an evil presence in the room, one that is trying to attack them.  If you google images of “sleep paralysis,” you’ll get the idea…

Somehow your mind goes back to sleep and you wake up the next morning wondering what happened.  You have a memory of the event, but no way to explain it.  And, there is no way to know what causes it.

(By contrast, sleep walking is when the body wakes up but the mind does not. You have no recollection of what happened.) 

For centuries, doctors have searched for answers to explain sleep paralysis and the frightening experiences people have described.  The first description of sleep paralysis (originally called a nightmare) dates back to 1664.  Some cultural explanations believe there is truly an evil spirit associated with sleep paralysis, but the proof is only anecdotal.  No one has ever died from sleep paralysis. 

Doctors say that sleep paralysis is not harmful, although it is certainly scary.  Most sources agree that sleep paralysis may be an early sign of narcolepsy.  Studies have shown a higher incidence of sleep paralysis occurs in patients with mental health conditions, especially those who are under psychiatric care. 

The best advice to avoid sleep paralysis is actually to get more sleep.  Sleep deprivation appears to be associated with a higher risk of sleep paralysis as well.  If you are getting plenty of rest and still experiencing sleep paralysis, it would be wise to talk to your doctor or see a sleep medicine specialist to rule out more serious sleep disorders like sleep apnea