How Real-Life Trauma Led To Terrifying Sleep Paralysis

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
Imagine waking up from a nightmare in which you couldn’t scream, or run away, or even move your little finger – only you suddenly realise you are actually awake. You are paralysed from the top of your head to your toes, you can’t open your eyes or make a sound to alert anyone to the fact that you are trapped inside your own body.
The first time I experienced sleep paralysis, I was 15. I’d slept over at a friend’s house and I could hear my other friends chatting and moving around in her bedroom, but I couldn’t open my eyes or sit up and join in. I was terrified. This was before you could google your medical symptoms so when I got home and asked my mum about it, I was relieved that she knew what I was talking about, and that this thing which had happened to me was called sleep paralysis.
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For those of you who are unfamiliar, sleep psychology expert Hope Bastine can explain the science behind it. "Sleep paralysis is the result of a mismatch in your sleep cycles. During REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep your body is paralysed to stop you acting out your dreams and to carry out essential maintenance. The paralytic substance usually wears off just as we wake up for 3-20 minutes after each sleep cycle. However, with a sufferer, they wake up before the paralytic substance has worn off and often when the dreaming state has not quite finished." 
Dr Matthew Walker, the author of 2017 bestselling book Why We Sleep and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, describes this as a "self-incarceration of total muscle paralysis".
Twenty-one years after my first experience with sleep paralysis, I have learned to live with what has become a regular occurrence in my life. I’ve met with multiple doctors and many sleep experts to try and escape it (one of whom suggested Prozac, which has the side effect of...insomnia). 
A few years ago, however, I started realising that sleep paralysis wasn’t happening at random and picked up on patterns around when the condition would hit me. At best I would go a few weeks without experiencing it. At its worst, sleep paralysis could strike multiple times a night.
I should not have been surprised that I was in such turmoil as I slept. I was in complete emotional turmoil in my waking life. 2014 had been a bad year. I underwent a serious operation to remove a (thankfully benign) tumour from my neck and while in recovery, discovered that one of my best friends had stage 4 cancer. As we welcomed in 2015, my friend was deteriorating and passed away in March that year. Three months later my ex-boyfriend, with whom I was still extremely close, died suddenly in his sleep. I was heartbroken.
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I had a nightmare in which an old woman who was just a torso was screaming and dragging herself towards me on the floor. I couldn't get up and run away, or scream for help.

In the immediate aftermath my nightmares were vivid and intense. I was sleepwalking and would often wake up in different parts of my flat – I once tried to walk out of the front door but thankfully woke up in time to stop myself being locked out. That was nothing, though, compared with the incessant sleep paralysis. Sometimes I would even have a nightmare that I had sleep paralysis (like a sort of sleep paralysis Inception) and couldn't breathe. I would wake up choking and desperate for air.
Experts claim that sleep paralysis only lasts for a matter of seconds, a couple of minutes at the most. When you feel as if you can’t breathe that seems like forever.
At this point my sleep disorders had become debilitating. My grief was literally paralysing me. This is not uncommon, says Hope (whose website you can find here), though it is still an area which needs more research. She explains: "There is some evidence that sleep paralysis can be triggered by stress, trauma or grief. Grief is a commonly reported trigger and grief is a trauma."
Because I wasn’t sleeping properly at night, I would often find myself exhausted during the day. Following my ex-boyfriend's funeral, which I found deeply traumatic, I experienced one of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me. While napping on the sofa I had a nightmare in which I was in my living room on the sofa (so, naturally, I thought I was still awake) and an old woman who was just a torso was screaming and dragging herself towards me on the floor. I couldn’t get up and run away, or scream for help.
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Many people report seeing a 'demonic presence' during incidents of sleep paralysis, though this was my first experience. It was as if my brain was telling me I had demons to process right then and there. 
Hope agrees, and explains that if you aren’t processing your thoughts and trauma appropriately in your waking life, they will spill out in your sleep in the form of nightmares and sleep paralysis. "In the night hours there is less stimulation available to distract us from the painful experiences we need to process. The longer you delay emotional and psychological processing, the greater the degree of distress. PTSD is accompanied by a heightened state of anxiety and a re-experiencing and rumination of the traumatic event. Recent research indicates how dreaming is key in processing traumatic experiences but survivors often avoid sleep for fear of bad dreams and paralysis incidents."
Graphic designer Sarah*, 42, says that after her mother died she was pushing her grief to one side while she dealt with arrangements for her funeral, as well as taking care of her family. It was then that she experienced sleep paralysis for the first time in her life. "I was scared. I thought I was in a coma as I knew I was in my bed, in my bedroom. I became terrified it would happen again, which it did a couple of times. I began to suspect that it must be connected with my grief and the fact I was bottling it up."

If you aren't processing your thoughts and trauma appropriately in your waking life, they will spill out in your sleep in the form of nightmares and sleep paralysis.

I have learned that there are ways to reduce, if not avoid, sleep paralysis. My friend advised me to seek help for my internalised grief and trauma, and I underwent EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a psychotherapy treatment designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories), which allowed me to address my experiences. Hope agrees that therapy is "instrumental" in helping to reduce occurrences. 
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These days, I am glad that my grief isn't ruling my days and nights like it once was. As a result of that time, I created a nighttime routine which has become vital for me. After consulting several experts, I learned the importance of sticking to a regular bedtime, as well as the profound effects of screen time, caffeine and alcohol on your quality of sleep.
Hope says that it’s important to learn about sleep hygiene practices and experiment with the ones that work for you. "Once you have found something that works, stick to it religiously. It is important that you place your sleep at the forefront of your daily life. Being mindful of what you do in the daylight hours will directly impact your nocturnal activity." 
Almost five years on from the worst year of my life, I am relieved to say I have managed to vastly reduce the regularity of my sleep paralysis. At the time of writing, I have been sleep paralysis-free for six months, the longest I have gone without it in 21 years. This has as much to do with therapy, routine and moving on from that stressful time as it does with understanding what is happening to me.
As Dr Walker told me when I began investigating sleep paralysis, the main thing to remember is that nothing bad is really happening – it is all in your head. Simply understanding what it is stops you from panicking so much. Don’t fight against it. Relax and try to breathe. And when you do wake up, consider whether there is something behind it which needs addressing.
*Name has been changed

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