Although it is often considered an urban legend (re: the “night hag”), sleep paralysis (SP) is a real thing and affects approximately 7.6 per cent of people worldwide. I just so happen to be a fragment of that number.
In the teaser for next Sunday’s episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kendall Jenner reveals that she wakes up at night unable to move. “Everyone says I’m fine, but I don’t feel fine,” she says in the trailer. Of course, we’ll have to wait until the actual episode to drop for more details, but from the sounds of it, Jenner may be suffering from bouts of sleep paralysis.
According to a study published in the Sleep Medicine Reviews journal, sleep paralysis is “characterized as a discrete period of time during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet ocular and respiratory movements are intact and ones sensorium remains clear.” In layman’s terms, it’s when an individual wakes up fully conscious but unable to move. Shudders.
To fully comprehend how sleep paralysis rears its ugly head, a basic understanding of the human body’s sleep cycle (and how it works) is critical. According to the American Sleep Association there are five stages of sleep.
This is the stage in which you begin to doze off into a light slumber; also known as the easiest stage in which to be awoken. Your muscle activity slows down, while your eyes move slowly. It’s in this stage that you may experience sudden muscle twitches. Have you ever felt like you were falling? Yup, this is that stage.
Your eyes will stop moving at this stage, and your brain waves will move at a slow rate.
Stages 3 and 4
These stages are when you are in your deepest of slumbers—no eye or muscle movements whatsoever.
REM-sleep stage (a.k.a. Stage 5)
Not to be confused with the band, your REM-sleep stage (Rapid Eye Movement) consists of your breathing become more rapid, irregular and shallow. Your eyes will also begin to move rapidly in various directions and your limbs become paralyzed (which, according to research, occurs so as to not act out your dreams). Your blood pressure also rises and your heart rate increases. This is the stage in which you experience dreams.
It’s in the REM stage that sleep paralysis occurs. Basically, your mind becomes conscious before your body is woken up from its paralysis.
Those who’ve experienced episodes have reported seeing figures, feeling weighed down by an object and/or sensing a strange presence in the room. If you want to really freak yourself out, check out this Buzzfeed post, where 31 people share their sleep paralysis stories.
In my case, my limbs are rendered useless, eyes are glued shut and my brain can’t help but focus on my very shallow breathing (which, in turn, leads me to believe that I’m gasping for air/can’t breathe). I’ll usually attempt to wiggle my toes or fingers; I don’t see anything, but I’ll feel a weight holding me down. After a few seconds (which feels like minutes), I’ll wake up feeling both mentally and physically exhausted from the episode. I can never keep my eyes open for more than a minute after the episode. On the contrary, a friend of mine, who experienced her very first episode recently, recalled seeing a dark scribble-like object (in the shape of a tornado) situated in the corner of her bedroom. She sensed a weird presence, but decided to shut her eyes, and eventually fell back asleep.
The causes of sleep paralysis vary from person to person, but a lack of sleep, for one, can be the culprit. Conditions like narcolepsy, seizures and hypertension have also been linked to the disorder, as well as a general lack of sleep, jet lag, sleep disturbances and shift work. Basically, if you’re super stressed, then it could happen to you. Some people report experiencing it only once in their lifetime, whereas others will experience months of recurring episodes—some may even experience it on a daily basis. I personally get it a handful of times a year, however, during one unusually stressful summer while I was in university, I experienced multiple episodes in one night. It was alarming and to say I was afraid to sleep was an understatement.
So, what do you do if you find yourself in an episode? One way to utilize sleep paralysis to your advantage is to turn your episode into a lucid dream. A number of people on the interwebs have discussed employing this technique. However, if you, like me, can’t figure out how in the world to turn your episode into a lucid dream, try your best to remain calm. Easier said than done, I know, but the more you practise, the less intense the episodes will be. If your eyes are open, try shutting them and lulling yourself back to sleep while focusing on your breathing. If you find yourself wanting to wake up, but struggling, try moving your face muscles, fingers or toes. You can also try gaining control of your eye movements and moving them slowly from side to side.
After countless episodes of sleep paralysis, I’ve learned that it’s not actually a big deal and remind myself that panicking will get me nowhere. In fact, it’ll make everything worse. So, Kendall, if you are reading this and you in fact have sleep paralysis, don’t sweat it. It will pass.
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