Five times a week for five years, I found myself lying paralyzed in bed, awake and yet asleep in the wee hours of the morning.  I could barely breathe and thought I was having a nightmare, but how could a nightmare feel so realistic? It was a long time before I discovered that I had sleep paralysis, a common sleep disorder that is well-known for being extremely scary. 

The first time I experienced sleep paralysis, it felt as if an invisible entity was physically pinning me down to my bed. I couldn’t call out for help or move my arms, and the only thing I could feel was this otherworldly weight on my chest. My room had been transformed into a world only found in horror movies. Several shadowy presences glided across the floor, and one of them always hovered over me. After panicking for what felt like an eternity, I shut my eyes until the nightmare came to an end.

Back then, I wasn’t aware this otherworldly experience was a legitimate sleep disorder that affected four out of ten people in the world. I didn’t know 75% of these episodes caused very real hallucinations. For me, there didn’t seem to be a logical explanation for why I was going through it. When I discussed this experience at home, the concept appeared to be foreign to my family, so it was foreign to me. 

For a long time, I struggled to accept that I had a sleep disorder and needed to take steps to fix it. I was in college then, and I always looked like I wasn’t sleeping. Even with tests, assignments, and multiple deadlines, I was afraid to sleep at night because I was experiencing episodes more and more often.

This fear was so overwhelming, I thought it was easier to get used to it than to seek help. It utterly destroyed my mental health. It made me believe I was alone and that my sleep paralysis would never end. Only when I gathered the courage to search for answers, I learned that there was a way out.  

It turns out sleep paralysis occurs when your mind wakes up before your body. It happens either as you’re falling asleep (hypnagogia) or waking up (hypnopompic). It is a normal part of REM sleep, and 7.6% of the world’s population experiences it at some point in their lives. It can happen to anyone — especially those with erratic sleep schedules (*coughs*), so I wasn’t surprised to learn why I was experiencing it.

There’s no treatment for sleep paralysis, which means you can’t permanently stop these episodes from happening. You can, however, take specific steps to decrease the probability of the episodes occurring often, which is what I did.

Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is imperative. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day is a great place to start. I also found that drinking chamomile tea an hour before bed made me feel less nervous about going to sleep. I read that sleep paralysis is more likely to happen if you sleep on your back, so I started sleeping on my side. I began running regularly, and the exercise ensured I could sleep better at night. For most people, including myself, setting a routine takes time, so you might not notice a change immediately. But it’s the little things that make the biggest difference!

I would struggle with snapping out of episodes for a long time and had to usually wait until it was over — but you don’t have to. For most people, it’s impossible to wake your body up. Some, however, can slightly move their fingers, wiggle their toes, or twitch their facial muscles, which helps wake up the rest of their body.

After giving it a few tries, I discovered that I could actually wiggle my toes in between an episode and snap out of it instantly! It was a triumphant feeling.

It took many months of practicing little tricks and following a sleep routine, but the end result was worth it. I began experiencing fewer episodes and could find my way out of them. I was able to disassociate my fears from my sleep disorder. Now, I feel less scared during episodes. 

Through all my trials and tribulations while dealing with sleep paralysis, one of the things that inspired me to keep going, even on the hardest of days, was that I wasn’t the only one going through it.

If I had looked for answers sooner, I could have been less stressed and wouldn’t have lost as much sleep. This is why I believe no one should delay in looking for help, especially when something takes a toll on your mental health. It’s what I learned from the entire experience and have continued to apply to other areas of my life over the years.

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  • Fatemeh Mirjalili

    Fatemeh Mirjalili is an entertainment writer based in Mumbai, India. Her work has appeared in publications such as TheThings, Film Companion and Times Knowledge among others. She loves writing about pop culture, watching Disney musicals and re-reading Pride & Prejudice for what may seem like the millionth time.