Imagine this: you are fast asleep when suddenly your eyes fly open. You look around your dorm. You try to sit up but your body is somehow paralyzed. You try to scream to get your roommates attention that something is wrong, but your mouth will not open. You feel completely trapped. That's when you see a dark figure by your bed. You begin to panic. Your heart rate quickens, you begin to sweat and it feels real until the next morning.
This is sleep paralysis. Over 3 million people in the United States alone have suffered from at least one episode of it. I, myself, have what I call Chronic Sleep Paralysis. My biggest fear of coming to college my freshmen year was that I would have an episode and my roommate would wake up and see me and probably freak out. This, however, didn't happen. My sleep paralysis is triggered by stress and sleep deprivation.
I remember my first episode. I was maybe four or five, and I awoke in the middle night. I was panicking and freaking out because I couldn't move or scream for my mom. When I looked over by my door, what I saw completely terrified me. I saw the clown from my nightmare. After that night, I developed a fear for the dark. But, as I got older and experienced sleep paralysis more often, I began to develop a fear of sleep. To this day, I still have a fear of the dark and fear of sleep.
Whenever I tell people about my sleep paralysis, either one of two reactions that take place. There is either the person who will tell you that they've had it before and it's so scary, and they can't imagine going through it time after time. On the other hand, there are the people who don't believe you have it unless they see evidence of you freaking out in bed. This was my worry this year when I told my boyfriend that I have sleep paralysis and explained to him what it was. He believed me, but was so concerned about my safety that he would constantly ask, "what do I do if I wake up and see you having an episode?"
I answered, very nonchalantly, "Nothing. You just go back to sleep." He was surprised by my answer as he had expected me to tell him to "wake me up" or "call 911". But, due to the fact that I had been dealing with this most of my life, I was very comfortable handling it on my own. After my first few episodes, I taught myself tricks to get back to sleep. This would seem easy enough for most people. But, if you add on the fact that I have generalized and social anxiety and a panic disorder, this makes it a little trickier.
The tricks I taught myself were:
1. Do not go to bed angry or stressed.
2. If an episode occurs, remind yourself it is not real.
3. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and go back to sleep.
Sleep paralysis comes with a dark history. It was believed to be the work of demons, mostly associated with the work on Incubus, who would sit the chest of his victims. Originally, sleep paralysis was classified as simply nightmares, and in the 19th century Europe, it was believed to be caused by the poor eating habits of the people of this time. It was also believed to be the work of magic and possession. Doctors now, though, understand that sleep paralysis is caused by lack of sleep and stress.
Going to college is hard enough and it can cause a lot of stress and fear, but going to college and experiencing sleep paralysis is completely terrifying. If you know anyone who may be experiencing sleep paralysis on a regular basis, talk to them about it because normally the people experiencing it are too afraid to come forward and discuss it. So please ask them about it, because talking it out will honestly make you both feel better.