Sleep paralysis? Lucid dreaming? What is going on?
March 22, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Can someone tell me what is happening when I think I am awake, but I can't move anything or say anything. And how do I treat this?

Every time I fall asleep on the couch (as opposed to my bed), I experience a “dream” which feels incredibly real just before waking up. In the “dream” I am struggling to wake up and I call for help from my boyfriend (who is usually in the room). I try to weakly yell for help or yell “wake me!”, but I can’t seem to get anything out. I also struggle to move, but can’t. Today this dream occurred again, my boyfriend wasn’t home, but I “felt” him come home, and I tried to get him to wake me, because I couldn’t wake myself. In reality he was still not home. I also tried to move my eyelids and could see part of the room (I don’t know if this actually happened, but the room looked real). I was struggling to move my arms and was screaming inside because I couldn’t move anything. It always causes me a lot of anxiety and I wake up really upset.

Can someone explain what is happening and how I can stop it!?
posted by angelaas525 to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like sleep paralysis. Do you get migraines?
posted by c lion at 12:52 PM on March 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow this matches the description of Sleep Paralysis surprisingly closely. I don't know much about treatment for it, but seems like something to talk to your doctor about.
posted by aubilenon at 12:53 PM on March 22, 2011

Yup, sleep paralysis. I experienced this off and on during my years in college, though it's been a long time since it happened. Same symptoms, struggling to wake up - particularly trying to move my head from side to side, and feeling a presence in the room. Very scary! Some folks say UFO encounter stories may be episodes of sleep paralysis.

I am not sure how you can stop it, but I hope giving it a name and knowing other people have experienced exactly the same thing might bring you some comfort.
posted by Glinn at 12:57 PM on March 22, 2011

nthing sleep paralysis. Certain medications cause this to get much worse for me - eg I had to stop taking vicodin when I broke my leg because this happened to me literally every time I fell asleep (for three weeks!) which made a bad situation worse.

I've talked to my doctors about it, and they've never seemed too concerned. Not saying my doctor's might not just be jerks - but, I think it is a (relatively?) common phenomenon.

Maybe just try not sleeping on the couch? I don't mean that snarkily - I actually found that doing certain things like making sure I'm getting enough sleep during the week makes the episodes less frequent.
posted by CharlieSue at 1:00 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, ps, yes you are awake during the episodes - that is, actually seeing the room you are in with your eyes open. The "presence" (at least for me) is always behind me - as in, not something I'm seeing in the real world which I can see. Which makes the paralysis and not being able to call for help all the more terrifying.
posted by CharlieSue at 1:02 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

The basic idea, is that when you dream you are walking, your brain is really walking. Sleep blocks the spinal transmission with a cut off valve. If you gain consciousness before the valve has reset, then you experience paralysis. It can be terrifying if you dwell, for instance, on the idea that there might be a fire burning your feet, and you still couldn't move.

The panic is unwarranted, the effect will clear up in a few minutes. Maybe a harsher awakening, like an alarm clock, could keep you out of the twilight zone.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:02 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find that when I don't drink any water before going to sleep I get super dehydrated and I end up having crazy realistic dreams and sometimes sleep paralysis. For some reason this seems to happen to me more often when taking naps.
posted by littlesq at 1:06 PM on March 22, 2011

I've experienced this, but usually without the anxiety. I'm a fan of lucid dreaming, and when I have sleep paralysis, I'll often experience it as a form of that, except that I'm focused on the physical aspect for some reason (that is, I can feel that I'm laying in my bed).

Could you, perhaps, start reading a book about lucid dreaming (which itself seems to increase the frequency and quality of lucid dreams during the duration that you're reading the book!) and then try to begin recognizing the sleep paralysis for what it is? Just a thought....good luck!
posted by see_change at 1:06 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's sleep paralysis. I have it too. It tends to happen when I'm stressed out and it'll happen in fits. It wont happen for a year and then four nights in a row, bam.

It used to scare me and I used to fight it. I would panic. I would try to lift my arm or something and I couldn't. Now when it happens, before I panic, I just kind of accept it. It's happened before and I've always been okay. And I just wait. And then I'm okay. It sucks, but if you don't panic it seems to "clear up" faster. But if you fight it, it's kind of terrifying how you're just...frozen.
posted by phelixshu at 1:08 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Now that you know it's sleep paralysis, you might find that the anxiety during these episodes decreases significantly - once I'd heard of sleep paralysis, it was a lot easier to just relax and wait to fully wake up while telling myself "oh, weird, sleep paralysis again".
posted by annathea at 1:09 PM on March 22, 2011

I guess what we're all trying to say is: welcome to the club. Your T-shirt is in the mail.
posted by phelixshu at 1:11 PM on March 22, 2011 [7 favorites]

It used to happen to me a lot as a kid, although never happens now for some reason. At first it scared the hell out of me, but as I read up more about it, I learned to not worry about it too much, and actually used it for benefit. From time to time I could enter an "out of body experience" where I hovered above my own body, and then had a lucid dream where I could control my entire body and do whatever I wanted (I usually flew). Or I just woke up. Check out this link for more info.

One thing that I was able to do to easily get out of the paralysis is to focus on trying to just get your toes moving. Your toes will be able to move, and then eventually your legs, and then your entire body, and then you wake up. I was able to get out of sleep paralysis many types by focusing on moving my toes first instead of trying to move my entire body.
posted by ajackson at 1:18 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get this sometimes, but the more frightening aspect of it is that I also can't breathe. I believe it is some sort of sleep apnea that causes the breathing to stop, drawing me partially out of REM sleep such that I'm lying there fully conscious, fighting to breath and fighting to move. Eventually, and simultaneously, I get a breath and regain the ability to move. It's happened as far back as I can remember, but infrequently, and sometimes I go years without an episode.
posted by cl at 1:24 PM on March 22, 2011

In Newfoundland this is called an old hag [dream?] because often the experience would involve feeling there was some malevolent being in the room with you, sometimes sitting on your chest and holding you down.
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:27 PM on March 22, 2011

I also experience this -- for me it always occurs if I am fairly sleep-deprived and take a nap somewhere on my back. For example, if I plop down on my bed on my back, or if I fall asleep on my back on the floor (ugh...grad school). Every incident I have ever had began from this position. Perhaps I should tape a little sign to my ceiling saying, "You are lucid dreaming and not dead, take this moment to relax and feel what it is like not to have that back ache, tooth ache, knee pain, etc..."
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 1:32 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah I get this too. I want a t-shirt! Like ajackson, I find focusing on making a very small movement tends to break the 'paralysis.' And I started double-locking my front door after a particularly creepy episode, so I can at least talk myself out of actually believing that there is some burglar/demon trying to kill me.
posted by grapesaresour at 1:39 PM on March 22, 2011

Don't fall asleep on your back.
posted by lohmannn at 1:50 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a different sleep disorder (hypnogogic hallucinations) that I saw a sleep specialist for. He recommended certain changes in my "sleep hygiene" that have *significantly* reduced my episodes - apparently getting better quality sleep helps keep sleep disorders at bay. For me, this meant going to bed earlier (so that I got the same amount of adequate sleep each night and didn't make up for it on the weekends), kicking the cats out of bed to keep them from waking me up, and making the room darker. Sleep disorders are often brought on by or exacerbated by stress, so there may be a correlation there for you as well.

I would recommend trying to get better/more sleep, and seeing if that helps, and also doing whatever you need to reduce sleep-induced anxiety, like only sleeping in your bed (I had increased episodes when sleeping on the couch as well, I think because I subconsiously felt less safe there). If that doesn't help, and you're still bothered by it, seek out a sleep specialist - I believe there's medical options available if the sleep hacks don't work for you.
posted by Safiya at 1:50 PM on March 22, 2011

Sleep paralysis. I always get it when I nap on the couch too, I think its because you tend to fall asleep on your back, you are not deeply asleep and you're on a squisshy surface that makes it hard to move.

I just stopped taking naps. Problem (mostly) solved.
posted by fshgrl at 2:21 PM on March 22, 2011

I get this all the time, and have for years. It used to scare the hell out of me, but it's happened so much that I'm used to it. Sometimes I still think, 'oh no, what if I never wake up?' and get panicky. I hallucinate sometimes too, and see people/things in the room. I have also heard noises (not uncommon) and once felt a weight on my chest, which I have heard sometimes happens.

I get it MUCH more often when I drink, which disrupts my sleep cycle. I used to take melatonin for it, which helped a lot, and sometimes still do. I try moving my eyelids back and forth when I have it, which I have heard helps bring you out of it, but I don't know if it actually works for me or not-- it usually feels like it lasts a couple of minutes, but my sense of time might be distorted. I talk myself through it, remind myself it's happened a million times, and that I just need to relax and I'll wake up. I've heard certain sleep positions increase the frequency, but that hasn't been my experience.

It sucks, but you're normal! I think it's hereditary-- my mom had it, though much less often. Keeping a regular sleep cycle and not letting myself get too tired is what helps me the most.
posted by queens86 at 2:43 PM on March 22, 2011

This is how your brain stops you from sleepwalking. While you're dreaming, it disconnects your brain from your body so you don't wander around the house semi-consciously. It can get out of sync for a variety of reasons, and you can start waking up before everything gets back into gear.

I'd just not stress about it, it's not harmful, and it tends to be a phase and goes away.

From what I understand, its triggered by alterations in your sleeping schedule -- traveling a lot, working swing shifts; alcohol or caffeine or prescription drugs can make it happen more often.
posted by empath at 2:49 PM on March 22, 2011

I had that as a kid! I panicked until my mom told me what was going on.
And I vividly remember that in mid struggle I suddenly thought: you know what? There's nothing to be afraid of. I like being asleep. I'm going to try and fall asleep again!
So every time it happened I'd just snooze back into my pillow again and it stopped happening.

It was a very empowering feeling that taught me that any scary problem can be dealt with by having a snooze (ok, not really, but I still love my sleep).
posted by Omnomnom at 2:53 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

"The temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up also parallels REM-induced inhibitions of voluntary muscle activity. This natural inhibition usually goes unnoticed by people who experience normal sleep because it occurs only when they are fully asleep and entering the REM stage at the appropriate time in the sleep cycle. "

Because I have narcolepsy, I suffer from this sleep paralysis and also cataplexy and sometimes hallucinations.

Sleep paralysis can be its own disorder but can be a symptom of narcolepsy. Do you have any symptoms for narcolepsy?
posted by KogeLiz at 3:05 PM on March 22, 2011

I had it a lot as a child, sporadically as a teenager - but one particular episode (unable to scream whilst a little goblin thing was strangling me) was chilling enough for me to do pre-internet research in an actual library, if you can imagine! Once I knew what it was, I found I could rationalize the episodes and even start to enjoy them in a neat "Hey!, none of my friends get these sensations" kind of way. I haven't had a visual one for years, though I still get auditory hallucinations (imaginary telephones, banging on the windows, voices yelling about 2 inches from my ear) regularly. These have also been rationalized, I've made my peace with them.

Wear your T-Shirt with pride!
posted by nicktf at 3:10 PM on March 22, 2011

Yup, sleep paralysis. Happens to me every now and again. I've gotten used to it; it's weird and kind of unpleasant but not scary because I know that it's over quick. I think of it as being high without taking drugs (because I get auditory hallucinations).
posted by Lobster Garden at 3:22 PM on March 22, 2011

I had two of these episodes as a kid, including the malevolent being that gives me chills to this day although it last happened 10 years ago. The one I had when I was maybe 10 wasn't too bad. The one I had when I was about 20 was pure hell. Even though I knew I was asleep the most evil being you can ever imagine walked in the door and was just standing and staring at me. I even remember trying to beg my girlfriend to wake me up. The fear was incredible.

Only happened twice although I just realized it might be a decade thing since it happened at 10 and 20. I turn 30 this year, oh god!
posted by Octoparrot at 3:40 PM on March 22, 2011

As said above, it's sleep paralysis.

I've had episodes for at least the last 20 years, with varying frequency. It was very alarming when I didn't know what it was, but it's more annoying now. Having a fairly solid sleep routine helps reduce the frequency from what I can tell. But I know of no way to prevent them from ever happening, or of a way to "snap out" of it. Staying calm and not trying to fight will help you fall back asleep faster.
posted by spaltavian at 3:42 PM on March 22, 2011

I also had this when I was a kid. There was usually a sensation of urgency and imminent lack of breathing, so I'd have to gather all of my energy and try to move one finger. It was pretty damn difficult and didn't always work on the first go, but once I managed to break through I'd wake up right away, heart pounding and short of breath. Not a great time.
posted by noted industrialist at 4:35 PM on March 22, 2011

Some people are suggesting to just try and fall back asleep. That would work, but just in case you, like me, are too scared to fall back asleep, I would suggest making sure you wake all the way up and maybe get up to walk around before trying to sleep again.

I have had episodes where I fell into sleep paralysis maybe five times in a row because I would wake up, be too tired to get all the way up, try and fall asleep again, and just repeat the cycle. Moving around can break the cycle if this ever happens to you.
posted by queens86 at 4:46 PM on March 22, 2011

fshgrl: "you're on a squisshy surface that makes it hard to move."

I don't think this has anything to do with it. You're in a sleep state in which your body is actually paralyzed on purpose. You can't move at all, squishy or not.

I lucid dream as well which is associated with sleep paralysis, and I do get sleep paralysis from time to time. Please note that hallucination is common with sleep paralysis. I never have a presence like other people describe, but from time to time when I initially realize I'm awake and paralyzed, I do feel a little scared.

I notice that if I don't get enough sleep, the next time I sleep I do tend to have sleep paralysis, so I try to get a full night's sleep each night. You will learn over time not to be so afraid, I think. My mom is able to moan when she has sleep paralysis (she often falls asleep on the couch) and then I can wake her. Just talking to her will not snap her out of it, I have to go over to her and gently shake her. I'll say "are you okay?" and she will moan "no" and before I even have a chance to get out of my chair, she's moaning again. I think that time goes a lot slower for her when she's having sleep paralysis, because really it only takes me 5-10 seconds to get to her.

Like queens86 said, try to move. Last time I had sleep paralysis, once I woke up just for a second, I was able to start wiggling my foot around and then bouncing my leg. That way I knew I wasn't paralyzed and I finally did fall asleep, all the way.
posted by IndigoRain at 4:56 PM on March 22, 2011

People who practice "astral projection" often work to deliberately enter sleep paralysis, as this can be the first step in the process.

It happened to me naturally only once. I'd snuck into the upper balcony of my college's disused chapel to catch a few winks between classes. I deliberately picked the most hidden pew. When I discovered I was paralyzed it was horrifying. I had no idea how long I'd be stuck that way and I knew it could be weeks before anyone found me.
posted by clarknova at 5:53 PM on March 22, 2011

Exactly what you describe happens to me. This used to happen to me more often when i had poor sleep habits especially if I would fall asleep in the middle of the day. It used to terrify me but eventually I was able to figure out a way to not get freaked out about it and can kinda enjoy and control it to an extent when it happens.
posted by jmsta at 6:24 PM on March 22, 2011

Response by poster: c lion: I get bad headaches very frequently, but I don't know about migraines.

Similarly to CharlieSue, the presence today was behind me, but usually it is not. Maybe this is because today was unique in that my BF wasn't actually home and usually he is directly in front of me when this happens.

To those talking about stress as a cause...I definitely am very stressed at the moment with grad school. I am also pretty sleep deprived (insomnia at night, tired all day).

To queen86 & IndigoRain: my mom had a similar experience that I am having happen to her a few times about 5 years ago. So the hereditary thing would make sense.

To KogeLiz: I was told by a sleep clinic that I am a "possible" narcoleptic (no cataplexy though).

The responses have been extremely helpful! Thanks so much everyone!
posted by angelaas525 at 6:38 PM on March 22, 2011

I went through a spell where I had these maybe once a week for at least 6 months. I didn't have a "presence" but was afraid I might not be able to breathe. A major life shift (I think it was moving? not sure) put an end to them--in the same way that such a change can help kill an addiction.
posted by rustcellar at 8:14 PM on March 22, 2011

Got this nearly every night IFF I went to sleep on my back, so I always slept/sleep on my front. When it did happen, I focused everything on moving my big toe (wriggling) then all toes, then foot left and right like a pendulum, build on the movement, calf, leg, torso, shoulders and suddenly I was released, could turn over to my stomach and go back to sleep.

For some reason, it disappeared around age 25-30, don't know why.

Keeping an eye on my kids to see if they get it. If someone had explained it to me as a kid, maybe I would not have been so freaked by it.
posted by lundman at 8:24 PM on March 22, 2011

I know I'm late to the game but I used to get this when I was younger (in school/college) and always when I was sleep deprived. I'm sure this is not the biological description for what was going on, but it felt as if my body was so tired it just fell asleep before my brain could catch up. I'd hear voices, like there was a party going on in the other room, and I'd think I was opening my eyes and looking down the hall to see if there were people there. I couldn't move, I'd try to gain momentum with my arm to raise it, with no luck. And from all the descriptions I've read, I decided it was sleep paralysis.

I never get this in "normal" life when I'm getting normal amounts of sleep. Though I do get the dreams where I'm trying to run but can't, trying to talk but can't, and I always kind of assumed it was a similar thing going on, but when I'm actually in full sleep rather than soon after I've drifted off.

It's always scary at the time, but actually, I love it. Like having dreams where you're being chased or chasing someone ... it's like being in a movie where you're in danger but the truth is you're perfectly safe. Experiences we can't have in our waking lives. (At least, not most of us.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 10:10 PM on March 22, 2011

Just wanted to chime in to say that I'm prone (ha!) to a bunch of sleep disorders as well, and wow, was I relieved when I discovered that this stuff had names and that other people knew about it.
posted by desuetude at 10:28 PM on March 22, 2011

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