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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

Sleep Paralysis

Rochelle Merilien

You are lying in bed taking a much-needed nap. You have had a long day and this little refresher is just what you need. You are slowly becoming awake and aware of what is going around you. You can hear someone in the kitchen cooking and through the open window by your bed you can hear the sounds of the kids of the neighborhood jumping rope and playing hand games. You can even hear Old Mrs. Jones yelling at Little Johnny for running all over her flowers. You have been sleeping for about an hour and you feel that it is about time to get up. So you open your eyes, or at least you think you do. For reason some they are not open. So you think to yourself, "That is odd, I thought I mentally told my eyes to open?" So you try again, and this time you hear your voice in your head say, "Eyes open;" but again nothing happens. Now you think maybe you are really out of it, and that you must be extremely tired and just need to rub your eyes a little to get them moving. So next you try to move your arm, only it is stuck. Then you realize that your entire body is stuck. You think that this situation has to be unreal. You are awake; you have to be. You can obviously think to yourself, and you can hear everything that is going on inside and outside, but why are you not moving? You try to open your mouth and call for help, but you cannot do that either. You are completely paralyzed! Then you start to think this that is some sort of nightmare-and it is, except it is very much real. You are experiencing sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is a condition that occurs at either the onset or upon awakening of sleep. The medical terms for the two forms of sleep paralysis are hypnogogic and hypnopompic (1). When a person falls asleep, the body secretes hormones that relax certain muscles within the body, causing it to go into paralysis. Doing this prevents the body from acting out a person's dream, which could result in an injury. Sleep paralysis generally runs within one's family or in those who suffer from narcolepsy (2), but there is currently no explanation for why some people get it while others do not. While researchers say that sleep paralysis is not physically harmful, because the body is supposed to come out of that state within a few minutes after a person wakes up, they do not consider that the experience can take a toll on a person emotionally. The strain that a person feels and the stress that having this condition can cause, can possibly affect someone mentally, emotionally, or later on in life.

The reason I decided to research and write about this topic was because throughout my senior year in high school, I suffered from sleep paralysis, and have experienced situations much like the one described in the first paragraph. My senior year was packed with extracurricular activities. I worked part-time, preformed in three school plays and was also active in my religious responsibilities. It was April when I had my first experience with sleep paralysis. I honestly thought that I was loosing my mind. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was taking a nap. I had fallen asleep watching TV. One of the first things I became aware of after my initial shock of being unable to move any of my limbs, was that the TV had been turned off. I could also hear my mother cooking in the kitchen, and all I could think was, "This cannot be real. It has to be a dream; no one goes to sleep with the ability to move only to wake up paralyzed!" I was some how able to calm myself down and fall back asleep. When I woke up again, I was able to move and the first thing I did was tell my mom. Being from the Caribbean, she told me that when stuff like that would happen back home, people would say that it was demons. I honestly did not how to respond to that, but I told her it was one of the scariest experiences of my life and that I hoped it was one-time occurrence. Imagine my dilemma when it occurred two weeks later, and then again a few weeks after that. It would always occur on Saturdays between 2 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The difference between these occurrences and the first was that I could never calm myself back asleep. I would wake up immobile and immediately the fear would set in-the fear that I was no longer in control of my body. It was like being told I could not control my life. I would lie there wanting to scream, willing some body part to move or for someone to come into my room and wake me up for some stupid reason. Then a minute later I would regain my mobilization. I would be shaking and breathing heavily as if I was just suffocating.

While some of the triggers for sleep paralysis are fatigue, anxiety, and continuous changes in daily routine, I find it interesting that I have not suffered an episode during my attendance at Bryn Mawr-a place where I feel I have experienced much more anxiety and fatigue. For the month and a half that I suffered from frequent sleep paralysis episodes I dreaded taking naps on Saturday afternoons. I would torment myself thinking that there was always a chance that I might fall asleep and wake up and not be able to come out of my frozen state. As the months went by I was able to retake naps on Saturdays and I thought that the episodes had finally stopped. I was able to take the all of my emotional feelings about sleep paralysis and lock them away in the back of mind only to be released for anecdotal discussions. I felt great and thought I would never have to deal with it again, only during one of our school breaks, I had another episode. It was then that I knew that it wasn't really over-that there was always a possibility of it coming back.

Sleep paralysis is real. Although it does not affect everyone, it does occur. I and others I know who suffer from it are living proof if that. There are those who pass it off as mere hallucination and do not believe in it because it is not commonly discussed or well-known. In researching sleep paralysis, I feel that even those who do know about it and have written about it do not validate the emotional injury that suffering form this condition brings upon a person. Many of the web pages I visited would state that sleep paralysis was not harmful to a person physically -which is true, but they rarely made any mention of the agitation, despair, and fear that is experienced when a person goes through it. There was only one page that I went to that actually offered suggestions as to what a person can do to calm down when waking up in paralysis. It is very easy to say, "Take deep breaths and concentrate on trying to move one small body part" when a one is awake, but it is quite different to try to do that when one is within the paralysis.

(1) Hypnogogic refers to the period when the body is in paralysis before a person falls asleep and hypnopompic refers to the period when the body is in paralysis when a person is about to wake up.
(2) Narcolepsy is a neurological condition where a person has uncontrollable attacks of deep sleep.


1) Stanford University Sleep Paralysis Information Page , Dr. William C. Dement's page on sleep paralysis

2) skeptic homepage , The Skeptic's Dictionary

3) Sleep Paralysis information , Sleep paralysis is normal, MP, August 29, 1997

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