Sleep paralysis can occur either when falling asleep or when waking. It is sometimes associated with narcolepsy, however many people experience sleep paralysis without being narcoleptic. As always, you should discuss medical issues with your doctor.
Sleep paralysis is characterized by being totally aware and apparently wide awake but literally unable to move a muscle. The experience can be extremely frightening however it usually wears off shortly. It can be helped to pass by staying calm (easier said than done) and slowly willing small movements such as fingers and toes then slowly increasing them until full wakefulness returns.
Speaking personally, I experience sleep paralysis about once a year, waking in the middle of the night unable to move. The first few times I was terrified. The only movement I could make was to open and close my eyelids. By force of will I managed to roll my head over slightly then back and forth, gradually increasing the movement until my head was thrashing about. This seemed to “release” the rest of the paralysis after what felt like ages but was probably only a few seconds. Not recommended – I was awake but had a sore neck!
Nowadays I’ve learned to think “Oh, sleep paralysis again”. I close my eyes and go back to sleep, waking up perfectly normally later on.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
During ordinary REM sleep, the body is unlinked from the brain and effectively paralyzed. It is theorized that this is to prevent the body thrashing about and harming itself trying to “act out” dreams.
Sleep paralysis appears to occur either at the beginning or end of REM sleep when the brain and body get “out of synch”. The body is paralyzed for dreaming but the brain is awake.
Various factors seem involved in triggering an attack of sleep paralysis. The main ones seem to be disturbance to the normal sleep routine and stress.
As well as the inability to move, many people (not this writer) have reported hallucinations during nighttime paralysis. These often seem to take the form of someone else being in the bedroom.
For this reason nighttime sleep paralysis was once known as “Old Hag”, a common hallucination being some malefic presence holding the sleeper down.
Some people have suggested that the combination of paralysis and hallucinations of others in the bedroom could be related to reports of nighttime alien abduction.
Most people dislike sleep paralysis and either try to end it as quickly as possible or attempt to sleep through it.
However there are some people who actively seek and enjoy sleep paralysis. It is reported that if you are comfortable with the situation then sleep paralysis is an ideal state for inducing very powerful lucid dreams.