There have been many mornings that I’ve awakened to find my brain alert but my body unable (or was it unwilling?) to move. I always attributed it to a slow waking process and I wasn’t far from the truth. Those mornings never really bothered me, even though there have been a few over the years when that slow waking process took what felt like hours.
There was one instance, however, that really freaked me out. A few years back I was having a lot of trouble sleeping and also suffering from fatigue during the day. One of my doctors had me try a new sleep medication to see if it would help. I slipped this little pill under my tongue and let it dissolve and I soon dissolved away into dreamland. The problem was when I woke up about two hours later feeling as if someone had mummified me. It literally felt like someone had tied ropes or cloth around my entire body. I laid there in a panic, because even though I was fairly sure it was a side effect of the medication I had no idea how long it would last. Needless to say that was the last night I took that medication.
Whether it’s the slow waking or the sense that you are tied up, have an elephant on your stomach, or that you are being attacked. Sleep paralysis isn’t uncommon and it’s closely related to night terrors.
Past theories about sleep paralysis have covered everything from hallucinations to evil spirts stealing your soul. But, don’t worry the truth about sleep paralysis is that it’s nothing to worry about and a completely normal part of waking up. Chances are that it occurs to some degree every morning but that most of the time it is over before you can even acknowledge it.
When you sleep the pons (the part of your brain that controls movement) sends out signals shutting down movement. This is to protect you and those around you. Can you imagine if you acted out all those crazy dreams you have? You’d likely wake up covered in bruises (and so would anyone around you). A few of us have problems with those signals being sent properly and that can result in sleep walking, eating, driving, or even punching and kicking in your sleep.
When you wake up it takes a bit of time for your brain to send signals out to all the nerves and muscles in your body letting them know that they should also wake up. The conscious part of your brain wakes up first, then it sends signals to your spinal cord telling it to wake up. It’s during that interval between the two that you will likely experience sleep paralysis. Once those messages are delivered to the spinal cord and it wakes up, you can move normally and all is, once again, right with the world.
So, the next time you wake up and start freaking out that you can’t move a muscle, don’t worry. You won’t be paralyzed forever. Chances are that by the time you’ve even fully processed that you can’t move your toes will already be wiggling and your body will be as alert as your mind.