A Neuroscientist Tried to Help Me Overcome My Sleep Paralysis

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Photo: OcusFocus/Getty Images

I am “scientifically interesting,” according to Baland Jalal, a fellow at the department of psychology at Harvard University and the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge. It’s rather concerning to be called such a thing by a neuroscientist, but he does have a point — because, almost every night, I wake up paralyzed.

I have sleep paralysis, an often misunderstood condition that is associated with a disruption of REM sleep. My experience with it, other than the frequency with which it occurs, is fairly textbook. I’ll wake up — sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the morning — completely unable to move. I can see my surroundings, so it’s not quite like being stuck in a dream; I just can’t move my arms or legs. Sometimes, I see things while I’m lying there: shadowy figures in the corner of my bedroom, insects or animals crawling up my bed toward me. A feeling of intense panic washes over me, and I try to move, speak, or scream — but I can’t. The experience probably only lasts a few seconds, but it feels far longer.

It is, in a word, terrifying. I’ve experienced it for around ten years — the first incident was in my teens — and I’ve tried numerous methods to stop it happening. First, I started with the basics: apparently a “restful sleeping environment” can help, so I transformed my bedroom into a veritable oasis of calm. No dice. I briefly gave up smoking and tried to drink less caffeine; I didn’t drink alcohol too close to bedtime. I stopped falling asleep on my back after reading that that was a failsafe way to avoid paralysis, but it didn’t work; I still found myself waking up sweaty, scared, and unable to move. I took sleeping pills, hoping they’d just completely knock me out. I stopped napping in the day or waking up late, because those were the times I was most likely to experience paralysis. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. None of it ever worked.

Much like me, Jalal has also had bouts of sleep paralysis. After a particularly bad experience, he decided to look to the scientific literature on the topic, finding it “scarce.” He’s since set about changing this, and has now developed what he says is the first “systematic, direct treatment” for sleep paralysis: meditation-relaxation therapy. Using the principles of mindfulness, the treatment has four steps, intended to be carried out during an episode of paralysis

I was skeptical. I was also, however, getting pretty tired of waking up paralyzed every night. So I decided to try it.

First, Jalal explained the science behind sleep paralysis. Like many sleep disorders, paralysis is linked to REM sleep. During REM, your brain stem inhibits motor neurons, and you’re paralyzed — but normally during this process, you’re unconscious. Sleep paralysis occurs when physiological arousal causes a perceptual awakening that doesn’t match what your body is capable of in the moment — you can see, and you can breathe, but you can’t move. (It’s important to note that much of our neuroscientific understanding of sleep paralysis is unconfirmed; as Jalal says, it’s a very under-researched phenomenon.)

Hallucinations are also common during sleep paralysis — in a 2014 paper co-authored by Jalal and neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, they describe the “presence of menacing intruders in one’s bedroom” — creepy, humanoid figures that lurk in a dark corner. I often see a faceless man advancing toward me; other times, a snake lies on my ceiling, about to drop onto my motionless, paralyzed body. Ramachandran and Jalal hypothesize that this is all to do with the parietal lobe, which normally gives you an idea of your body image, or a sense of how your body looks in space. When there’s no feedback from your limbs — because you can’t move — a “body-image distortion” occurs. Approaching figures are your own body mass, projected out, perceived and interpreted as an externally threatening being.

As you can probably tell, sleep paralysis is not fun. It’s so distressing, in fact, that it can lead to severe anxiety and depression, though the link is thought to go both ways. Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University in London, told me that there does appear to be a correlation between anxiety and depression and sleep paralysis. But he suggests that paralysis may be more likely occur in those who already experience mental-health problems. Anecdotally, everyone I’ve ever known with sleep paralysis has had preexisting mental-health problems: my bipolar disorder, my ex-boyfriend’s anxiety, my best friend’s depression.

Jalal confirmed this — the more anxious you are, either clinically or because of sleep paralysis itself, the more likely you are to experience it again. This is what he calls the panic hallucination model: Through “escalating cycles of fear,” a positive feedback loop is established, which both worsens attacks and leads to more.

It’s hard to get a good idea of just how many people experience this; estimates of what portion of the population will have at least one episode in their lifetimes range widely, from 5 to 60 percent. For my purposes, though, the point is that I’m not alone. That’s part of Jalal’s first step in overcoming sleep paralysis. “Tell yourself this experience is common, it’s benign, it’s the by-product of dreaming,” he tells me. This is what he describes as “reappraising the meaning of the attack.”

The next steps are perhaps easier said than done. Jalal instructs me to emotionally and psychologically distance myself from my paralysis, reminding myself that millions of people have experienced the same thing to try to take away the “catastrophic cognition” of the experience. You then try to do what Jalal calls “inward focused-attention meditation,” in which you focus intently on to something incredibly positive. “The idea is that you have limited attentional resources in the brain, so if you focus on something really positive, you can stop the attack,” Jalal says. Finally, you close your eyes and try to relax all of your muscles.

I had a hard time imagining how I would possibly do this. Mindfulness is all very well — and meditation has helped with my severe anxiety before — but in the moment of paralysis I wasn’t sure whether I’d really be able to focus my mind on anything other than the seemingly unending horror the phenomenon inspires. The natural reaction is to fight; you try to squeeze your hands or open your mouth to make it stop. You don’t want to relax into the moment, because there’s nothing remotely relaxing about it. It seemed like a curiously holistic suggestion to come from a neuroscientist.

The first few times I tried the method, my skepticism was all but totally confirmed. If anything, paralysis felt worse; I was hyperaware of the fact I was paralyzed, hyperaware of the fact that I was supposed to be trying to relax, and therefore completely unable to do anything other than lie there and panic even harder. I couldn’t focus my mind on anything positive; all I could think was “for fuck’s sake, I can’t move.” One particularly bad night I woke up paralyzed several times, so keenly feeling the presence of a man standing by the door that my whole bedroom felt heavy with dread for the next two days.

What I was sure Jalal was right about during the first few days of my relaxation trial, however, was the fact that sleep paralysis works on a positive feedback loop. I was thinking about sleep paralysis all day at work and reading literature on it when I got home, my anxiety around it increasing incrementally scientific paper by scientific paper. By the time I got into bed, I was already resigned to the fact I’d probably wake up terrified, sweating and paralyzed. And I was right — I did. Where previously I’d have several attacks a week, or one a night, I was now having at least one every night, and sometimes more.

After the first week was over, however, things started to change a little. As Jalal suggested, I started practicing the technique when I wasn’t asleep; I’d lie in bed in the morning and before I’d fall asleep, systematically going through all of the steps. It felt a little like progressive muscle relaxation, which made me feel calmer generally, and I started to feel more confident that I could actually enact the steps during an episode.

Sometime during the second week of the trial, it actually started to work. Instead of fighting against the paralysis, I relaxed into it; instead of frantically scanning the room with my eyes for a shadowy figure, I closed them. I thought about small, positive things like how cute my cat’s nose is and how much I love my nephew; starting from my feet and moving methodically up my body, I tried to let go and relax. I would go back to sleep faster, and the terror of an attack started to recede faster than it ever had before.

I can’t say that mindfulness techniques have cured me of sleep paralysis — I’ve still woken up several times in the last week unable to move — but I can certainly say it’s helped, especially in terms of making the experience more tolerable during the fact. For me, understanding the neuroscientific processes also helped; it demystified it, it made tangible things I assumed but didn’t quite understand, and it turned something nebulously terrifying into something I could quantify quite clearly.

I may have initially found this holistic, two-pronged approach slightly baffling — can’t someone just scan my brain or give me a pill or something? — but it actually proved to be the most effective talisman against sleep paralysis I’ve discovered yet.