Imagine this- You’re in bed, sleeping peacefully, maybe even having a dream. Slowly but surely, you can feel yourself waking up except, you can’t seem to wake up fully. Your mind is telling you now that you are awake, but your body refuses to move.
Your eyes are open, and you suddenly feel a sort of pressure on your body, maybe your chest. You feel uncomfortable and try to move, but you can’t. You see a figure forming from the corner of your eye. It doesn’t have a particular form or shape, but you can swear that you see it.
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The pressure starts to increase, you are breathing faster, but you can’t seem to call out for help. All that you can manage is a weak whisper, which not even you can hear adequately.
And then suddenly, you wake up. The figure is gone. The pressure is gone. You are in your room, safe.
What you just experienced is called ‘Sleep Paralysis.’ The condition is exactly what it sounds like. Your body becomes paralyzed in between this sleep-wake cycle. Although this lasts for just about a minute or even a few seconds, the experience can be jarring.
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What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
In reality, no one knows. However, several factors contribute to a person experiencing sleep paralysis. It has been noticed that sleep paralysis occurs mostly during adolescence, and each episode lasts for just a few seconds or a few minutes, but not more.
There is no telling when an individual might experience sleep paralysis, so it can be challenging to measure or record it scientifically.
A few causes of sleep paralysis can be:
- A history of sleep paralysis in the family
- Irregular sleep patterns, jet lag or changing shift work
- Anxiety disorders
- Sleeping on your back
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Sleep paralysis is classified as a parasomnia- which means an undesired event that happens during sleep. This condition is not very uncommon, and at least 8% of people in the world experience the phenomenon of sleep paralysis occasionally.
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How Can Students Avoid Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis can leave you feeling breathless, flustered, and completely disoriented. Even though it is a well-known fact that the phenomenon lasts only for a few seconds (or minutes), the experience can be incredibly jarring and leave you feeling horrified.
Not only does this affect your sleep, but it can also affect your day to day activities, interactions, and mental health as a student.
There are a few things that you can do, which can help you avoid, or at least come out of a state of sleep paralysis:
1. Don’t Sleep on Your Back
This one sounds too easy to work, but sleep paralysis is more likely to occur if you are sleeping on your back. This is why people often feel a ‘pressure on their chest’ and can see hallucinations of someone sitting on their front (chest or stomach). You can try to make it a habit to sleep on your side instead.
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2. Keep a Consistent Sleep and Wake up Time
Sleep paralysis can occur during disrupted sleep patterns. Often, these sleep patterns are self-created. Maybe you like to stay up at night on your phone or watch movies or binge on Netflix. While these might seem fun for the time being, they mess up your sleep cycle and can cause this phenomenon of sleep paralysis to occur more often.
To fix this, have a specific bedtime set for yourself every night, and try and stick to this timing (even when you are on holiday). Make sure that you do not eat a heavy meal 3 hours before bed. You don’t work out during this period, or even spend your time before bed in front of your devices and screens.
Reducing your light exposure a few hours before bed can help your body go into a relaxed mode and help you sleep through the night without experiencing sleep paralysis.
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3. Try to Surrender
Your first instinct during sleep paralysis would be to try and fight it- to force yourself out of your state of sleep. Unfortunately, this can be the exact wrong thing to do during a bout of sleep paralysis.
Instead of fighting it, you can train yourself to relax- tell yourself that you are merely experiencing this phenomenon, and you will be out of it in just a few seconds. The more you heighten your sense of fear and anxiety, the more your mind will play tricks on you and cause you to hallucinate and feel scared.
4. Make Small Movements
When you are experiencing sleep paralysis, the first thing you notice is that you cannot move. Then, you realize that you can’t even scream. Thinking of making small movements might be the last thing on your mind.
However, in sleep paralysis, most of the weight and inability to move will be felt around your chest, stomach, and pressure on your arms and legs. The feeling does not extend to your fingers and toes.
When you are experiencing sleep paralysis, you can try to move your fingers or your toes. Do it slowly, try one finger at a time, and don’t overthink it. It works as a sort of physical therapy and helps your mind and body sync to the same state of awareness and of being awake. This will slowly help you come out of your country of sleep paralysis.
Often, sleep paralysis can occur due to underlying conditions as well, such as stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It helps to talk to a professional and get the right kind of advice and support to come out of this condition and avoid it from reoccurring.
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Till then, maintaining a proper sleep cycle, not consuming alcohol, stimulants, or eating a heavy meal, and even exercising before bed can be small things which you can do to avoid sleep paralysis from occurring.
Although the experience itself feels traumatizing, sleep paralysis cannot cause death. However, it is good to form certain habits and routines, which can help you not experience this condition again during your lifetime.