Sleep paralysis sounds like the stuff of urban legend or American Horror Story. In the middle of the night, you feel the terrifying sensation that someone is pressing down on your chest, standing at the doorway, or lying next to you in bed—but you're utterly unable to move. You're trapped. Paralysed in a disturbing state between sleep and consciousness, you know what's happening, and you know you just need to wake up for it to end—you're trying to wake up—but you can't. Your eyes may even be open, and you may even feel like you are awake, but you can't make the paralysis end of your own accord. You just have to wait for it to be over.
It's been brought to our attention thanks to the recent Keeping Up With the Kardashians episode, in which Kendall Jenner confessed to her sister Kim that she has been suffering from sleep paralysis. And as scary as it sounds, it's scarier to experience, and as strange as it sounds, it's surprisingly common. So common, in fact, that in researching this story we discovered four people at our very own offices who suffer from it, one of whom was willing to share her story with us. Keep scrolling to read what it's like to actually have sleep paralysis.
What is sleep paralysis?
First, some fascinating background on sleep paralysis. To get some insight on the strange condition, we spoke to James A. Cheyne, a scientific researcher with the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo whose expertise is sleep paralysis. When we asked if there is a known first documented case of sleep paralysis, he explained that sleep paralysis has been around for centuries.
"Accounts of what seem very clearly sleep paralysis experience are as old as (and probably much older than) written records," he said. "Many, if not all, ancient cultures have accounts of night demons or creatures assaulting people at night while they are paralyzed and helpless. The original meaning of 'nightmare' was of a night creature that attacked people during the night. It was only in the 20th century that 'nightmare' came to be consistently used to refer to any bad dream."
So what exactly happens during an episode? In sleep paralysis, individuals are conscious of their surroundings but unable to move, and most often describe a "sensed presence;" feelings of pressure on the body; and auditory and visual sensations, like voices in the ear, sounds (such as footsteps or tapping), or a shadowy figure moving across the room. Scientifically, sleep paralysis is described as a conscious state of involuntary immobility, and an episode may last for a few seconds or several minutes.
The sensed presence is most often ominous, predatory, and threatening. Some of the time it is "just there," and other times it is associated with movement and approach, like coming up the stairs, entering the room, approaching the bed, and climbing onto it. Feeling pressure on the mattress as the presence climbs onto the bed is most commonly reported. The majority of people who report sleep paralysis describe feeling fear and, if they cannot wake themselves up, being in danger—the feeling that the presence has evil intent.
In fact, many report "fear" as not being a strong enough word to describe it, but rather overwhelming terror and horrific fear. Some describe a physical assault from the intruder, anywhere from feeling pressure on their chest to the sensation of someone sitting on their chest, holding them down, and choking them. The experience is described as "vivid" and unlike any fear experienced in the "real world."
It is difficult to get an accurate sense of just how many people suffer from sleep paralysis because of varying degrees of cultural knowledge, along with fears of stigma. In one research paper published by Cheyne, of 870 students who reported at least one experience of sleep paralysis in their life, only 45% reported ever having spoken to someone about it (mostly all friends or family)—and only two reported ever having spoken to a doctor. Many voluntarily reported (i.e., without being asked directly) that they were afraid of being considered "weird" if they spoke about it, and several others also reported that as the exact reaction they received upon revealing their experience to a friend or family member.
In the paper, Cheyne wrote that many of the individuals believed their experiences were unique and "expressed considerable relief upon discovering this was a known phenomenon" (which is exactly what we heard from the person we spoke to, as you'll read below). Given the disinclination to make one's experience public for fear of judgment, Cheyne wrote that this contributes to the underreporting of sleep paralysis and to the absence of wide knowledge or close study of it within our culture.
"How common it is is not as straightforward a question as it may seem," he said. "It depends on the age and culture/subculture of the group being surveyed. In cultures where this phenomenon is well known, like Japan, or in Canada in Newfoundland, rates of 60% or higher may be obtained. In most North American samples, reported rates are much lower and very variable. A rough estimate for North America might be about 25% for having at least one elementary episode in a lifetime." In a nutshell, the more cultural knowledge there is of a condition, the more it gets reported and diagnosed.
So why is there such a high cultural knowledge of sleep paralysis in Japan and elsewhere but not stateside? Chayne said it's an interesting historical and anthropological question that has more to do with when or why North American cultures lost awareness of it somewhere in history. "I suspect the question is why did cultural knowledge become lost among mainstream Europeans?" he said. "Because it is well known in most (perhaps all) traditional cultures. My guess is that it has something to do with the Enlightenment."
As for what incites an episode, Cheyne told us there is evidence that it is associated with a minor anomaly in the brain's regulation of the onset and offset of REM sleep. "Sleep paralysis is fairly clearly an anomalous REM phenomenon whereby people enter REM directly from waking rather than after a period of sleep. There is some evidence—but no very good studies yet—of a genetic link," he said.
When we asked if sleep paralysis is associated with other health issues, Cheyne said it seems to be a fairly isolated phenomenon in the majority of cases, but that people experiencing narcolepsy are especially prone to it. It typically has an adolescent onset (about 17), but a first episode can occur at any age. As for triggers, Cheyne said anecdotal evidence suggests stress and irregular or disruptive sleep patterns seem to exacerbate episodes. "However, for many the episodes come and go without any obvious trigger," he said.
Keep scrolling to read our Q&A with our colleague who suffers from sleep paralysis.
A personal story
Pretty fascinating stuff, huh? Have you heard of sleep paralysis before? Have you ever experienced it? Share your thoughts and experiences below; we'd love to hear from you.