Preventing and Coping with Sleep Paralysis 

Stress: Among the most common precursors of sleep paralysis are stress and sleep disturbances. These two often occur together. Indeed, a reasonable hypothesis is that the effects of stress on sleep paralysis are mediated through disruption of sleep. In any case our respondents very frequently mention, quite spontaneously, that they experienced more than usual amounts of stress during bouts of sleep paralysis. Some older respondents have mentioned that they had experienced sleep paralysis many years ago, but had gone for many years without any problems until they began to experience family-, professional-, or job-related stress. Knowing that one's sleep paralysis may be caused by stress may seem of limited utility. One is almost certainly already highly motivated to reduce high levels of stress and likely would have done so if it were easily done. Realizing, however, that the stress may be mediated through sleep disturbances at least affords one some strategies of dealing with stress-related sleep paralysis even if one cannot eliminate the stress itself. Periods of stress are often associated with insomnias, including difficulty falling asleep, multiple and prolonged waking during the night, and early waking. The first likely leads simply to a general sleep deprivation, while the later two may have a relatively greater impact on deep sleep and REM sleep. Since sleep paralysis is thought to be a REM-related problem, not being able to remain asleep for sufficient periods to accumulate normal REM may predispose one to enter REM prematurely, as it were, immediately upon falling asleep and hence cause the person to experience sleep paralysis. The most direct way of coping with this is to maintain a regular schedule and maintain one's normal times of retiring and rising. These are frequently disrupted during periods of stress. Eating large amounts late into the evening, drinking beverages containing caffeine and alcohol, and excessive smoking are common reactions to stressful conditions and can be quite disruptive both of sleep in general and of the normal sequencing of sleep periods more specifically. Clearly avoiding any of these, especially in the late evening, will help prevent sleep loss and hence bouts of sleep paralysis. A serious Sleep Debt, which tends to take a greater toll on REM, might well contribute to increased incidence of SP. 

Sleeping position: It has been long suspected, and frequently reported, that lying in the supine (face-up) position seems to be associated with sleep paralysis. In our own work we have found that lying in the supine position is five times more likely during sleep paralysis that it is during normal sleep. If one is trying to avoid sleep paralysis then avoiding the supine position is strongly advised. For people who normally sleep in this position changing may prove difficult. However, sleeping on one's back appears to be relative rarely in our international samples, with only 10%-15% of people reporting that they normally sleep in this position. Since, about 60% of sleep paralysis episodes are reported to occur in the supine position obviously many people who are experiencing sleep paralysis are in, for them, an unusual position. The effect of sleeping position is quite evident in the following figure. The supine position is among the least frequent positions during normal sleep whereas it is clearly the most common position. It is also evident, however, that sleep paralysis may occur in any position for some people (Labelled 'Variable' in the Figure). There are also a few people who appear to have sleep paralysis preferentially in one of the other positions. Nonetheless, a number of respondents, after following our suggestion to try to avoid sleeping in the supine position, have indicated that sleep paralysis episodes have declined or ceased. 

  These findings should certainly encourage people to try to sleep on the side, especially during bouts of sleep paralysis. Of course, we cannot know yet whether there is a causal relation. It may simply be that whatever state predisposes one to sleep paralysis may also bias one to lying in the supine position. In any case, if I were having difficulty falling asleep because of recurring episodes of sleep paralysis I would certainly elect to lie on my side. The astute reader may have been asking herself, "if so few people lie in the supine position when they are going to sleep how do so many end up in that position during sleep paralysis?" We do change positions frequently during the night, usually during the transitions between sleep stages. When we do so we will sometimes end up in the supine position. Consistent with this speculation, we have recently found that the supine is even more common when SP occurs later in the sleep period than when it occurs at the beginning. One way of avoiding turning over on the back is to use the 'tennis ball technique' sometimes recommended for obstructive sleep apnoea, another condition in which the supine position appears to be problematic. The 'tennis ball technique' involves sewing a pocket (or pining a sock) on the back of one's night clothes and inserting a tennis ball or two. I am not at all sure how well this might work but I would be interested in hearing of the experience of anyone who tries this.

Making Small Movements: When you find yourself in the midst of a sleep paralysis episode you might try a traditional method for overcoming the paralysis that involves attempting to move one's fingers or toes, or even one's tongue. Although the major muscles are completely paralyzed the smaller muscles, especially of the eyes, fingers and toes are less so. A number of people have been suggesting rapidly moving one's eyes back and forth as a way of bringing a bout of SP to an end. If you are having multiple or repeated experiences at one time it may help to get up briefly and move around before trying to sleep again as it is possible to have multiple episodes in a single night.  

Making Mental Movements: If you cannot move your body then perhaps you should dispense with that encumbrance and move without it. I am not suggesting that you truly can move without your body, but you certainly can have the experience of doing so. There are some people who actually induce SP episodes in order to produce out-of-body experiences and engage in what they call "astral travels." When paralyzed they report that they can "sit up" or "roll out" of their bodies. This is sometimes called "projection." They describe this as a kind of "mental" movement rather than a physical one. In other words they appear to try to make the movement effortless rather than forcefully struggling against the paralysis. It strikes me that this might prove to be an effective strategy for overcoming the paralysis. Of course, you might just end up having an out-of-body experience but that might be preferable to simply lying in bed paralyzed. If anyone tries this, or has tried it, I would be interested to hear of your experience.


It has been a few months since I asked for feedback from individuals who have tried overcoming the paralysis by producing an out-of-body experience. A few people have responded and all have commented on the difficulty of explaining how they accomplish this manoeuver. The typical instruction is simply to just "will it" to happen. To understand what it is like it is necessary to simply "try it for yourself."
Sometimes, the first experience is spontaneous. After a period of struggling the individual just gives up the struggle and later simply fids themselves outside of their bodies. All are unanimous that struggling is counterproductive. The act of leaving the body is described as effortless and natural, and sometimes as a purely "mental" act. Sometimes, individuals report having some difficulty in moving for a while after the initial OBE and speak of having to learn all over to walk as well as learning the entirely novel skills of moving by floating and flying. One individual described his early actions as "stumbling around like I was drunk and falling into the floor.
It was somewhat frustrating reading this accounts and not being able to experiment myself with this kind of experience. I have learned to produce and control lucid dreams but, because I had not had a SP experience in over twenty years, I was unable to try the techniques of the "astral projectors" to produce an OBE during SP. Then one day I finally got my chance.

I had not had more than an incipient SP episode for about 20 years until early in the morning of May 10, 2002. I had experienced difficulty falling asleep the previous evening, which was very unusual for me. After tossing and turning from around 23:00 to about 1:30, I found myself staring at the bedroom wall. There was something about the light reflected on the wall that did not seem to be right. The reflection should have been on the opposite wall. Also the orientation of the wall was also not quite right. When I tried to turn over to look at the opposite wall I realized I could not move. I next realized my eyes were actually closed and so forced them open, and the anomalous reflection was gone. The previous impression had been hallucinatory. I then remembered my determination to experiment with the OBE should I ever have another SP experience. Here was an opportunity try to roll out of my body. I tried to do this as nonchalantly as the circumstances permitted and had immediate success - well almost. I could feel myself separating from the upper half of my body by turning to the right, but felt stuck in my lower torso and legs. I then decided spontaneously to try to spin out of my body and I immediately began to spin around the longitudinal axis of my body and slid out, floating down the bed, and ending up hovering across the foot of the bed - actually just past the foot of the bed - hovering, in a horizontal position, a couple of feet above the bedroom floor.

Now that I was "out," I decided to experiment further. I first tried to levitate my "astral" body - which seemed to be complete. I was unable, however, to rise above about three feet off the floor. I then decided to let myself fall - or rather, sink - into the floor. In this I was successful and I passed through the floor effortlessly, noting the floor joists as I passed, through the next level and the next floor. I then realized that I would next sink into the ground and decided that would be unpleasant and so stopped myself from sinking and found myself once again at the foot of my bed. I next decided to try floating horizontally toward the window. This worked immediately and I awaited, with some anticipation, my passage through the window. I passed through the window quite effortlessly, though I felt myself brushing aside a few of the slats of the Venetian blinds that really do hang in my bedroom window. Then things began to get truly interesting!

I next found myself floating, in the same horizontal position, outside my bedroom window, except it was now outside my bedroom in the house where I grew up. I was floating over the roof of the veranda looking over the edge. I noticed an eaves trough along the roof with Engelmann ivy growing in it. (I do not remember whether the veranda had an eaves trough but I do know that there was no ivy growing at the old house. There is, however, Engelmann ivy growing along the eaves outside my window in my present home.) I hesitated to try to float out beyond the roof of the veranda. Although, I was well aware of the fact that this was a dream, I was somewhat apprehensive about floating so high above the ground. I thought it might be safer to swing down from the ivy. I realized quite well also that the vines of such ivy could not support my weight in the waking world but felt sure that they would in the dream world. I grabbed the vines and swung from the roof. I then began swinging back and forth in ever-greater arcs from the house next door on the right, which was a semi-detached just as it had been at my old house to the house on the left, which also appeared just as I now remember it. This was the most exhilarating part of the dream. The swinging was rather breathtaking but not scary. I did this for a while as the vine gradually lengthened and finally let me down gently on the lawn.

I began to wander around the old neighbourhood. In the back of my mind, I could not suppress the thought that I might meet a pretty girl in my wanderings! I passed a kind of wall or pillar in front of the driveway of the house where two of my childhood friends lived back then. As I looked at the wall I thought how incredibly real and faithful to the original neighbourhood everything I was experiencing about the neighborhood seemed. Ironically, the wall that engendered this feeling was entirely fictional - perhaps the only inauthentic part of the neighborhood in my dream - for it was quite clear to me that I was now having a full-fledged dream, however lucid. I came to a door and began to open it. As I was doing so I glanced through a window (actually a kind of port hole) and realized that I was going, not inside, but outside, onto the deck of an ocean liner. I could clearly see the water through the glass. When I got outside, I had some difficulty closing the heavy door, which was very like the heavy metal doors on many of the ocean liners on which I have traveled. It was difficult to close, as they usually are, partly because of their weight and partly because to the rocking of the ship. The deck seemed deserted. As I moved along the deck and turned to go around some stairs a pretty girl in a dark overcoat passed me. I attempted to seduce her but she seemed rather coy for a dream girl. Then, just when I thought she was becoming somewhat receptive to my blandishments I woke up. Serves me right, astral travelers usually warn against the distractions of sex during lucid dreams Yet, I did manage to remain lucid throughout the dream, never losing sight of the fact that it was all a dream. In any case, it sure beat the hell out of the typical SP episode!

Now that I have tried and succeeded in producing a voluntary OBE I must now try to do what I have asked others to do: describe how it is done. That it is difficult to describe is not surprising. It is difficult to describe because one has no idea how it is done - any more than one knows how one signs one's name, throws a ball, or takes a single step. One does not need to describe these things because, normally, nobody needs to be told how to do these things. These are simply things we do without thinking about them. We simply decide to do them - and we do them. This is also how lucid dreamers do things in their dreams: They simply decide to do them. This is as true of floating over cities and it is of making monsters disappear as it is of walking across a room. One decides to do things and automatic processes take over. My own view of lucid dreaming is that it differs from nonlucid dreaming only in that the frontal cortex has somehow become activated. Hence our planning and decision making ability has returned and we can decide to engage in particular acts and even that we will have certain kinds of experiences - and not others. Automatic processes take over - or, . . . sometimes . . . not. If they do not there is nothing else to do except to plan on doing something else and hope that the automatic processes for that are ready to hand. The point is that there is no way that one can voluntarily affect the automatic processes except by planning and deciding.

I think the forgoing should help us understand why simply trying harder and harder, that is, struggling to move our bodies is pointless. We have no voluntary control over the mechanisms that block the motor signals before they can activate the appropriate muscles. I think all the other automatic processes are activated, however, by our plans and decisions. They are simply prevented from acting on the body. One must forget the body for the brief period of paralysis and trust that the automatic processes, which have nothing to do with our wishing and willing, eventually release their inhibitory grip on our bodies. This does not mean that our experience is limited to lying motionless and terrified in our beds.

Recall that my first attempt to roll out of my body was not completely successful. I got stuck halfway out. Had I continued to struggle to get out of my lower body I think I would have been unsuccessful and would have quickly found myself altogether paralyzed within seconds. Rather than trying harder to have the experience of getting out of my body I tried something different. I decided to spin. I do not know how I managed to spin any more than I really know how to sit up or roll over. I just decided to do it and some automatic processes just took over. There was no guarantee that they would do so. I might have got stuck again, though I did not. If I had, I suppose I would have tried to sink out of my body or float out. I am confident something would have work eventually, as long as I did not start to struggle to make something happen that just was not ready to happen.
Trying to act in as natural and unforced a manner as possible is part of the solution but I do not think that it can be the whole answer. The type of movement seems important. Turning, spinning, rotating seems to work better than simple linear movements like sitting up.

Lucid dreamers are well aware of the fragile nature of the lucid state during dreaming. It requires keeping focused on one's state to avoid lapsing into a conventional nonlucid dream. Of course, for the individual who is merely trying to end a SP episode this possibility of simply lapsing into a conventional dream from SP might be considered an additional blessing. The majority of SP experients have little interest in exploring these unusual experiences, they simply want relief from SP. Short of preventing SP episodes bring them to an end by using the techniques of astral projectors might be the best alternative available.

Medication: A number of medications, usually those affecting the neurotransmitter serotonin, appear to reduce or even eliminate SP episodes. Although there are no controlled studies that I am aware of, numerous respondents have reported marked reductions in SP episodes when taking SSRI's such as Prozac and, unfortunately, equally marked increases when they stop taking them, or switch to another type of medication. Several who have been both on and off SSRIs have reported corresponding decreases and increases in SP episodes. I should also not that there are also many who report no effect at all. This may depend on dosage which we have not looked at yet.

 
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