You’re startled awake, and your mind searches for the cause. You try to move but can’t. You try to call out for help but are unable. You can’t breathe. You can’t breathe! Why can’t you breathe?!
That’s when you feel something sitting on your chest.
In all likelihood, it’s neither.
If you’ve ever experienced this scenario then you know why some believe they’re being attacked by a spirit, others by an alien, and why some refer to it as “night terrors.” In reality, it’s actually a disorder known as sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but paralyzed that occurs between wakefulness and sleep. It occurs at two different times during the sleep cycle, either upon falling asleep, when a person remains aware as the body prepares for REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, or upon awakening, when the mind becomes aware before the REM cycle is complete.
In either instance, paralysis, which is a naturally occurring part of REM sleep, sets in leaving the individual unable to move. This is usually accompanied by particularly vivid hallucinations which play out on a backdrop of the person’s actual environment. The experience usually leads to feelings of intense panic.
Many will experience sleep paralysis only once or twice in their lives while others are subjected to it on a regular basis. Contributing factors include extreme stress, sleeping on the back, combining too much alcohol with too little sleep, sudden environmental or lifestyle changes, and conditions such as narcolepsy. Changing or eliminating any of these factors, such as trying a side-sleeping position, may help lessen the chances of experiencing sleep paralysis.
Should you find yourself in a state of night terror try to remember not to panic and then concentrate on moving just one body part, such as a finger or toe. In most cases, once movement starts it releases the body from the REM sleep state and the phenomena ceases.
Sleep paralysis doesn’t usually require medical intervention, but a physician may be consulted if it disrupts activities of daily living.
The most important thing to remember is that it probably isn’t a ghost or demon but simply a common sleep disorder.