The woman was in their late 50s. Every night they would fall asleep and then dream that they were unable to move, but that their husband was coming into their room and trying to attack them. Helpless, they could neither move nor cry out.
"This went on for several years," says Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University. "It was very difficult. She was exhausted." It turns out the woman had a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis -- when a person is asleep, but immobilized. Like many who have sleep paralysis, they were also having "hypnagogic hallucinations" that they were being attacked. "It's not a serious condition," Kushida says. "But it can be very disturbing."
Sleep Paralysis Causes
Just why or how it happens isn't clear. Researchers believe sleep paralysis is caused by a disturbed rapid eye movement cycle because it mostly happens as people are falling into or coming out of REM sleep. During that stage, their brains normally paralyze their muscles anyway -- so they don't act out their dreams. But during sleep paralysis, the sleeper is awake, or half awake, and so is aware they cannot move.
Studies show that between 25% and 50% of Americans have had sleep paralysis at least once. Many people who have it also have narcolepsy, in which they fall asleep uncontrollably. Sleep experts believe sleep paralysis might be partly genetic.
Other causes include stress and disrupted sleep schedules (think jet lag or pulling an all-nighter). Several studies have also found links between social anxiety or panic disorder and sleep paralysis.
Clearly, an episode of sleep paralysis can be scary, which has led to some unorthodox theories. Research shows that people in countries as diverse as China, East Africa, Mexico, Newfoundland, and the United States have long believed that paralysis is caused by demons, witches, or other supernatural creatures sitting on their chests and sometimes trying to have sex with them.
Often the experience is accompanied by noises (like loud buzzing), sensations of being dragged out of bed or flying, and difficulty breathing. In fact, some researchers believe sleep paralysis is what's really going on with stories of alien abductions.
What Can You Do About Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is frightening, but sleep specialist Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, says people can take steps at home to stop the episodes.
Skip the nap. "Nappers seem more prone to sleep paralysis than non-nappers," Kushida says, "unless the nappers always sleep at the same time each day."
Get as much sleep as possible. "There seems to be some evidence that people who are sleep deprived enter REM very quickly, which means they're still awake as their body gets paralyzed," Kushida says.
Don't sleep on your back. Sleep experts have found a correlation between sleeping in a supine position and being vulnerable to sleep paralysis.
Seek care. Because sleep paralysis might be linked to other sleep disorders, including REM disruptions and narcolepsy, it's important to see a sleep specialist if your paralysis occurs often, Kushida says. And if you're dealing with high levels of stress or anxiety, consult a mental health professional.