5 Steps To Prevent Sleep Paralysis

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Case Study

I awoke one night to a grip on my throat. An old woman in a white gown was straddling me as I lay in bed. Her face was full of creases like unfolded origami. Her long, gray hair falling to my temples. She laughed like the wicked witch as her cold fingers tightened around my neck. I tried to pry them from my throat, but I couldn’t move a muscle. What the fuck was happening?!?! I thought as I stared into her black eyes.

A few years ago, my husband and I moved into a property in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The building was converted from an old hospital named Saint Elizabeth’s of Hungary. Before closing its doors in 1981, St. Elizabeth’s was packed with 110 beds for the sickly. 

“That’s 110 mattresses for people to die on,” Hubbie said. I married a superstitious man who was getting cold feet over the new apartment. 

But the lease was iron-clad: signed, sealed, delivered. Besides, who believed in ghosts anyway? How antiquated, I thought. As a devout realist, I felt obliged to remind Hubbie that the only “supernatural” we needed to fear was Santana’s album of the same name (especially the song “Smooth” featuring Rob Thomas.) 

Hubbie brought out the big guns on moving day. He covered the apartment in smoke from burning sage and sticks of palo santo. He chanted something in Hebrew that would keep us from evil’s harm. The smoke cleared away ghouls that had failed to cross over, he said, taking with them their malicious intentions.  

Soon thereafter, we met our neighbor, Barbara, who suffered from predementia. Who are you? she’d ask every time we bumped into her in the hallways. We introduced ourselves each time acting like it was the first encounter (that’s how polite we were.)

About a month into the lease, we hosted a housewarming party. There was music and lively chatter among friends. It was all a little too much for Barbara, who sought the quiet enjoyment of her apartment next door. 

She knocked on our door repeatedly, but instead of waiting for us to answer and chat about the goings-on, she’d hurry back to her apartment and slam the door behind her. I would catch the coattails of her escape. Her white gown dragged on the floor like chinchilla fur.

Now, I let old people get away with non-PC shit all the time, but I wasn’t in the mood to indulge Barbara’s antics that evening.  So I knocked on her door and waited. A few seconds later, there she was, peering at me from behind the chain lock.

“Are you Neo-Nazis?” she asked.  

To which I replied, “I spit on Neo-Nazis. And by the way, there are enough Jews next door to dance the horah.”  

“I want it to stop,” she said. But I told her that it wouldn’t. That we won’t.  

I apologized and walked away; her murderous stare flinging daggers into my back.  

That was the last time I saw Barbara.

Cut to a few months later, when I received news of her death from our superintendent.

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

According to Sleepfoundation.org, “sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up.”  

During REM sleep — or “the dream stage” — our bodies experienced atonia, or a temporary loss of motor functions. Atonia was a good thing, overall. It kept us from punching our loved ones in the face when we dreamt of being Ultimate Fighting Champions. It also kept us from sleepwalking to the freezer to devour a tub of Rocky Road ice cream in our underwear.  

Typically, atonia ended right before waking. It would send a signal to the brain as permission to begin the morning ritual. To open the eyes. To yawn deeply. To stretch and to rise.   

But in rare cases, there was latency. The signal got delayed. Perhaps it took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up transmitting this message to the occipital lobe — the part of our brains that controls vision.  

In those few paralyzing seconds, the images that our minds conjured in the dream stage would project onto our surroundings, otherwise known as hallucinations. You couldn’t shake them off because you couldn’t lift a finger. Suddenly, the frail old lady you ran into in the hallways became the pasty-skinned girl-ghost from The Ring.”

I experienced an “intruder hallucination,” which made sense because I didn’t recall inviting Barbara over to terrorize the shit out of me. Au contraire. She had invited herself as she used to when she needed to place calls from our cell phones or when she fancied drinking peppermint tea from our mugs.

In my research, I stumbled upon a tale dating back to the 17th century. A 50-year-old woman who was in “good plight [health]” claimed that she had been raped by the devil as she lay in bed one night. It was the first documented case of sleep paralysis, authored by a Dutch physician named Isbrand Van Diembroeck.

I don’t want the devil to rape me, I thought. 

Best to formulate a plan.

The Stats:

75% of sleep paralysis involves hallucinations that are distinct from typical dreams1. (In other words, three out of four chances that your ass will be haunted by someone Barbara-like.)

8% of the world’s population will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives2. (Damnit, Katniss!  The odds are ever in my favor.)

28% of adolescent students may experience sleep paralysis regularly3. (You hear that, eager young minds?)

There’s a 38% chance that certain patterns, such as sleep apnea or nighttime “leg cramps,” may lead to sleep paralysis4. (This one’s for you: avid snorer with tight hamstrings.)

31% of psychiatric patients experience at least one episode of sleep paralysis5. (As if living with severe anxiety wasn’t enough.)

According to Sleepfoundation.org, 90% of sleep paralysis episodes are associated with fear. In other words, the greater the fear, the likelier you are to awaken to a scene in Rosemary’s Baby.” John Cassavetes is no longer your darling husband, but rather a hairy beast terrorizing you to kingdom come.

5 Steps To Prevent Sleep Paralysis

Let’s follow these guidelines, shall we?

Step 1. Don’t sleep on your back. When I attempted this, I curled into a fetal position post-paralysis. I tried not to think about Barbara, but the more I tried not to think about her, the more I did. I managed to drift into sleep, nevertheless, only to awaken ten minutes later from an impending nightmare. When I came-to, I realized that I had shifted in my sleep and was once again lying on my back.

Step 2. Ensure that your sleep won’t be disrupted. Try telling that to the mice living in the walls. But that’s what you get for signing a lease in a former hospital where people went to die.

Step 3. Avoid the overuse of stimulants before bedtime. There goes my nightcap! But I can work with this, I told myself. “Starting tomorrow,” I vowed like an enlightened junkie in search of a straight path, “I will drink my last glass of wine at roughly 6:30 PM.” That should allow plenty of time to piss away the stimulants.

Step 4. Learn meditation and muscle relaxation techniques. Ah, now here’s a twofold step I can tackle head-on! Well, at least half of it.  See, I’ve got the meditation part down, but if by “muscle relaxation techniques” they mean “stretch more often,” then we have a problem.

Step 5. Attempt to move extremities. Aka act like you’re Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” — the scene where she’s lying on the backseats of a pickup truck, unable to move a muscle. “Wiggle your big toe,” Uma says willfully. “Wiggle your big toe.” The camera cuts to a shot of her big toe-tapping against the car door. Hurray! She can now begin her mission of gory revenge. “Hard parts over,” she says. “Now, let’s get these other piggies wiggling.”

The Bottom Line

I concede: There’s no one blueprint for success when it comes to preventing sleep paralysis. It happens to the very best and most prepared eight percent of us. We simply lack the technology to see it coming from a mile away, as unpredictable as a tornado in the South Dakota plains.

But there are things you can do to minimize your risk of sleep paralysis. For starters, learning about some of the afflictions associated with sleep, such as sleep apnea and night terrors, is a great jumping-off point. You can also follow QWERTYdelight’s ultimate 10-step routine for better sleep to help you catch more of those elusive ZZZs.

Maybe you’re in the 92% that won’t experience sleep paralysis in their lifetime, thereby avoiding a “Barbara” of your own. Or maybe you’re in the eight percent, like me.

Either way, there’s nothing to fear. Sure, sleep paralysis can be scary. But just like a panic attack, it’s also fleeting. So take a deep breath. Wiggle some piggies. And get some much-needed rest.

  1. Denis, D. (2018, Nov 2.) Relationships between sleep paralysis and sleep quality: current insights. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30464663/
  2. Sharpless, B. & Barber, J. (2012, Oct 1.) Lifetime Prevalence Rates of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review. Sleep Medicine Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156892/
  3. Hsieh, S. & Lai, C. & Liu, C. & Lan, S. & Hsu, C. (2010, Nov 19.) Isolated sleep paralysis linked to impaired nocturnal sleep quality and health-related quality of life in Chinese-Taiwanese patients with obstructive sleep apnea.  National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20577906/
  4. Sharpless, B. & Barber, J. (2012, Oct 1.) Lifetime Prevalence Rates of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review. Sleep Medicine Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156892/
  5. Sharpless, B. & Barber, J. (2012, Oct 1.) Lifetime Prevalence Rates of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review. Sleep Medicine Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156892/
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1 year ago

Idk man, I’m with hubbie… that shit sounds like you were visited by a ghost. But thanks for the advice against sleep paralysis.

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