Erika Shevchek: Sleep Paralysis — a space between reality and REM

Monday, September 25, 2017 - 5:41pm

“It feels like only in my nightmares will I see my own body, dead and still. But when sleep paralysis cross-pollinates what is dreaming and what is real, the fears of seeing my own body, frozen and corpse like, is unfortunately so realistic.”

I wrote this immediately after waking up from my worst episode of sleep paralysis. But before I enter the truths of this hellacious experience, it’s important to see what’s happening, how to fight it and of course, how to prevent it.

Sleep paralysis can be defined as “a temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or upon waking.” As someone who suffered from chronic sleep paralysis, and after hours and hours of research, I finally have a decent explanation for what’s happening in our bodies. And it’s hauntingly fascinating.

Our brains go into REM cycle while we sleep, which is what produces vivid, internal dreams. When we are in REM, our bodily senses turn off and let us have uninterrupted sleep. By shutting off our senses, our body allows mental REM to safely take over, so you don't actually attempt to jump off the building and fly (something you might be dreaming of in that moment).

Imagine your senses like light switches: When you sleep, they’re all turned off. Normally when we awake, all those switches turn on at once. We see the sunlight through our window, we hear the chipmunks chatter and we taste our oh-so-nasty morning breath. But in the instance of sleep paralysis, those senses turn on at different times, and eventually, they are all on except for one: your ability to feel.

You’re lying in bed, unable to move and usually unable to speak, but there is the window with the light and sound of the cars rushing by outside. It’s all there, but muscles and senses that are under voluntary control, like getting up out of bed, are not available. You’ve woken up before your REM is over; you’re paralyzed, and it’s freaking terrifying. 

Your mind has completed its REM; it’s ready for the day. Meanwhile, your body is still in it, longing for more sleep and relaxation. I imagine my nerves and my receptors firing at one another: Half of me needs to go to my 9 A.M. class, and the other half of me needs to keep sleeping. It paralyses me.

So one may question: how did I get to this moment and how the hell do I get out of it? Whether it’s one random episode, or four times in one semester (like myself), the reasons for sleep paralysis are all common and most likely preventable. Those who do experience this are usually under great stress, suffer from regular anxiety, have had an irregular sleep schedule, or they’ve simply been sleeping on their back all night. Other factors can include depression, drugs and alcohol and certain medications.

I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis quite a few times in my life, starting in my adolescence and in high school. But with the social, academic and emotional stress of college, and as someone who has anxiety, sleep paralysis has found a new place in my life.

My excerpt above reflects one of the terrors I had when trying to come out of my sleep paralysis. My nightmare showed my body in the exact position it was in my bed, and it was all from a birds-eye view. I wasn't breathing in this image, my body was lifeless and I wasn’t asleep –– I have seen what I will look like when I die. The scariest thing about all of this is the utter lack of control that you have. Every day, we live in control of our minds, our bodies and our souls; every choice, every motion, that’s all up to us. And the instant we lose that ability to be an autonomous human is a fear that many, if not all of us, would not want to encounter.

To be quite honest, I thought that nightmare was the worst part of it all, but boy was I wrong. The moment I woke up from the paralysis and hallucinated a daunting black figure in my bathroom was something I had never experienced before. It was there when I decided that this cannot happen again, or at least not like this.

With a pretty consistent sleep schedule, no caffeine before bed, some melatonin, a happy episode of New Girl or a chapter of a good book, I have now been free of sleep paralysis since April. Making sure our bodies and our minds are relaxed before sleep is so vital, not just for sleep paralysis, but for our overall health. Take preventative action sooner than later, and that can even start by telling others. Tell your roommates, your family and your significant other. The more people aware of this, the more they can help you and the more they can be informed for themselves. 

If you do happen to experience sleep paralysis, do not fight it. What makes the dreams and the aftermath so horrifying is that our body and our mind are at war. To safely wake up, allow your body to sleep, let your mind dream the crazy dreams. And you will get out of it. I can promise you that.