Eamon Brown

Forced holiday: Sleep Paralysis at its worst

sleep paralysis

Frozen may have been a cute film, but if you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night frozen AKA in the grips of sleep paralysis, it’s not so cute – Eamon Brown is here to tell you though that it’s not something to be overly worried about.


Given my history in “Sleep Medicine”, TBS publisher Alexandra Tselios recently read about a common disorder regarding sleep paralysis and asked me to write an article on it.

So, like the good-natured person, I caved and handed to the dictator, who I love, what she wanted.

To set the scene…

You are in bed, sleeping and dreaming of your next adventure in the Swiss Alps. Your alarm has not gone off yet, but for some reason you are suddenly awake and feel incapable of moving…enough to get your heart racing and for your forehead to be a little moist.

What has happened? Why can’t you move? Did you break your spine in the night?

After about a minute, it’s over, and your body returns to normal…but the question remains, what happened?

It is not uncommon to experience sleep paralysis at one point or another, because sleep paralysis happens to everyone. The reason we do not act out our dreams is because during the REM state (rapid, or random, eye movement) sleep stage our brain stops producing a neurotransmitter called “acetylcholine”, which is the neurotransmitter that controls most of our movement.

Essentially we are paralysed.

So what has happened when we feel sleep paralysis?

More then likely, other parts of our brain have woken us up, and we have regained consciousness faster than we have regained our ability to move.

Studies have been undertaken to find out why this happens and its frequency. In 2011 a study was completed that found 7.6 percent of the general population, 28.3 percent of students, and 31.9 percent of psychiatric patients experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis. Of the psychiatric patients with panic disorder, 34.6 percent reported lifetime sleep paralysis. This indicates that a solid percentage of us are experiencing the panic-ridden moments of being unsure if we are awake or not. It is scary, and many people through their own sense of paranoia might look into supernatural causes rather than simply a scientific reason, and there is clearly a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

In fact, it’s worth digging a bit deeper and looking into “hypnopompic hallucinations” that occur during sleep paralysis that often lead people to believe they are having a physical interaction with an external entity. Some participants in sleep disorder studies have spoken of floating and flying sensations and others have experienced a debilitating sense of facing occult-like imagery. This can lead people to be fearful of going to sleep at night, resulting in inconsistent sleeping patterns and a cyclical pattern of poor sleep hygiene.

The important take-home note here is that sleep paralysis is nothing to worry about, unless it is affecting you randomly or frequently, such as during the day. Known as “Cataplexy” this is a very rare condition whereby people have sleep paralysis sensations throughout the day or when their brains become over stimulated. It is a very debilitating disorder. You might be more familiar with the term “Narcolepsy” whereby people spontaneously fall into sleep. This is a little different as it is caused by a hormone imbalance in the brain, the sufferer usually losing all consciousness during an episode. Sometimes, and more commonly, people my claim to have symptoms of these disorders, however, they may have an underlying condition that is affecting their sleep, causing them to have symptoms such as excessive daytime fatigue or disturbed sleep.

If you are concerned about your sleep or your night time health you should speak to a sleep physician.

But whatever you do, don’t freak everyone out and start telling people a demon is sitting on your chest…it is a bit over the top…


Eamon Brown

Eamon is a Public Health professional, with an interest in the Clinical sciences arena. He has previously worked in Sleep & Respiratory Physiology, Ophthalmology (eye infection research), Neurological clinical trials and Neurophysiology technology. His latest endeavors consisted of looking at and researching post-operative outcomes of patients with Upper Gastrointestinal cancers, leading to the creation of the Hospital based Upper Gastrointestinal Outcomes (HUGO) database, at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the wider Sydney Local Health District. He has previously been awarded a commonwealth scholarship to study a Bachelor of Medical Science at the University of Technology, Sydney (2011), a Master of Public Health, from the University of Sydney (2015). His work has been featured in the Sun Herald, The Public Health Association of Australia Intouch newsletter & ABC Radio.

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  1. Eamon said:

    Hi Nicola,
    Thank you for your comment on your experience with Sleep Paralysis. Yes, for a lot of people their first experience with the condition is very frightening. It is good that you now understand it and can relax until it passes. Regards, Eamon.

  2. Eamon said:

    Hi Martin, sorry, but I have not made a mistake. I did not want to explain cataplexy, as I was concerned about making people worried. But you are correct in your description. I have merely said sleep paralysis sensations, but I thought people would gather that I was referring to an alert state, as opposed to your condition, which you have no doubt been through the MSLTs and MWTs. Thanks for your addition and comment. Regards, Eamon.

  3. Martin Dolan said:

    Great article.
    Just to clear up a little mistake, cataplexy does not cause you to lose consciousness, it causes you to be paralysed. Basically as stated, just like when sleeping, the neurotransmitter turns off all control of muscles so you just collapse. During an episode of cataplexy you are 100% awake, able to feel, hear, smell and if your eyes happen to remain open you can also see. You just can’t move/control your muscles. Think of it
    Iike a marionette puppet that just had all its strings cut.
    FYI. I have Narcolepsy.

  4. Nicola Ranger said:

    I experience sleep paralysis from time to time, often it seems to happen when I have fallen asleep in a cramped position or when I am exceptionally tired. The first time was very frightening, I had a dream that someone was on top of me stabbing me in the head (so not too far from the demon on the chest example!). I felt that I was struggling to wake up but couldn’t move and kept falling back into the dream, where the stabbing would continue. Fortunately, a few weeks later I happened to read an article on sleep paralysis and I was so relieved to find that it is relatively common. Now that I know what is happening I can generally try to make myself relax and just wait for my body to finish waking up. I still occasionally see people that aren’t there during sleep paralysis but they are usually peaceful, for example I have woken up convinced that my housemates walked into the room and spoke to me while I was paralysed and trying to wake up, when in fact no one did.

  5. Rainer the cabbie said:

    Thanks, an educational piece.

    My favourite though, one that come too rarely, is flying in my dreams. Usually starts with falling off a cliff, only to remember its a dream before I hit bottom and them taking off like an eagle to fly over the landscape.

    This always has me waking up in an excited state. Best dream ever!

  6. Jacob Lynagh said:

    Cool topic to write about. I experienced sleep paralysis once, on my first overseas trip when I was staying at a backpackers in Vietnam – my guess is that stress played a part in its manifestation. It was pretty traumatic at the time, I didn’t want to sleep again for the rest of the trip. Glad it never happened again.

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