Sleep paralysis – why it happens and what to do to try and avoid the experience

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, not being able to speak or move. You’re fully conscious, but your body just isn’t responding to your brain’s instructions.

At this point, you don’t know if you’re dead or alive, but you see a shadow-like figure approach you and climb onto your upper torso. You look up, and then you see it – a ‘black demon’ sitting on your chest, squeezing the breath out of you.

Then suddenly, you snap out of it. You regain full control of your body and you sit up panting, frightened and confused by what you just saw.

READ MORE: Bloke has to 'tape his eyes shut' after paralysis strikes as he's watching film

If this experience sounds familiar, then the chances are you have already suffered from sleep paralysis in your life.

Sleep paralysis has traditionally been associated with evil spirits who disturb people at night, with almost all cultures in the world providing their own explanations for it. Some might even imagine the experience as an alien abduction.

In Japan it is attributed to a vengeful spirit that suffocates its enemies in their sleep, while in Brazil it is said to be caused by a demon with long fingernails called Pisadeira who walks on the chest of people who sleep on their backs on a full stomach.

Canadian Inuits, meanwhile, say sleep paralysis is caused by a Shamanic spell, while in the Islamic world, it is considered an attack by an interdimensional being known as a jinn, or a genie.

Scientific explanations, however, describe it as a hallucination that occurs during a disruption in the sufferer’s progression through the stages of light sleep to deep sleep, whereas another theory pins it down to a neural imbalance.

Although it isn’t totally clear why sleep paralysis happens, it is most common when the body is waking up or falling asleep as this is when your body is in sleep mode but your brain is still active.

The phenomenon has been linked to other sleep-related conditions such as insomnia, narcolepsy, anxiety, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you suffer from this, theNHSrecommends:

  • Get a regular 6 to 8 hours sleep every night
  • Stick to a fixed sleep routine
  • Exercise can also help, so long as it is done more than 4 hours before going to bed

What not to do:

  • Don't eat a big meal, smoking or drinking alcohol or caffeine shortly before going to bed
  • Don't sleep on your back, as this can make you more prone to suffer from sleep paralysis

Despite episodes of sleep paralysis usually being accompanied by the feeling of impending doom, the NHS reassures sufferers that sleep paralysis is actually harmless.

However, sleep paralysis may be a symptom of another sleep condition that should be looked into, and sufferers should get in touch with their GP if they feel very anxious or scared to go to sleep or tired all the time due to lack of sleep.

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