Sleep paralysis is the terrifying feeling of being held down after just waking up or going to sleep. You can’t move or scream, and sometimes this paralysis is accompanied with the certainty that someone –or something — is in the room.
Quite simply, sleep paralysis is one of the most horrifying experiences in life, because we feel awake but can’t believe what is happening to us.
The truth is, sleep paralysis is a biological event and there is nothing to be worried about. You’re not dying. It’s a hiccup in the brain’s chemical soup as we transition from sleep to wakefulness.
Recurrent sleep paralysis can often be prevented by attending to lifestyle choices, but making new habits can take time.
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So how do you wake up from sleep paralysis tonight?
Here I compiled 9 ways to get out now.
Note: Because this is such a personal thing, some of these tactics will work for you, and others won’t. Choose the ones that make the most sense to you intuitively. Think of these strategies as tools in a toolbox to bring out when the conditions are right. Make a plan and resolve to remember it for the next time you wake up in sleep paralysis.
1. Don’t Fight
If you feel like you are being held down and you can’t move, do not fight back. This actually will intensify the experience. Not only is fighting back likely to increase the feelings of being held down (so much that it may seem like you are being crushed), but fighting back will also increase the fear, thus triggering the emotional centers of the brain and strengthening this lucid nightmare. Controlling fear is the most important skill during these moments.
2. Surrender and Go with the Flow
Instead, try to relax when you notice SP starting to happen. Prepare an affirmation like “This is SP and I am okay.” If you feel pressure on your chest, see if you can “go with” the pressure rather than against it. It’s like winning a fight by having no resistance. For example, for me, I often feel like I’m being pushed into the mattress when I have SP. I let myself go, and mentally “pull” in the direction I am being pushed. What happens is I then “pop” into a full-on dream, or I can wake up directly.
3. Wiggle your Toe
Another excellent tactic that works for many people is to try to move an extremity, such as a finger or a toe. Most of the feelings of paralysis are in the belly, chest, and throat. So focus all you attention on the toe and try to move it back and forth. In many cases, this will break the paralysis.
4. Clench your Fist
This is a variation of the toe wiggle method. Clench and unclench your fist.
5. Focus on your Breath
An easy way to stop these nightmares is to do some controlled breathing. Controlled breathing does several things at once. For starters, it lessens the feelings of chest pain that sometimes accompany SP. Breathing is autonomic like the heart’s beating or digestion, so it’s not paralyzed like the big muscles in our arms, chest and legs. But breath can be controlled with attention or be affected by severe fear, which may be why SP sufferers “forget” to breathe when under attack. If you can control your breath, you can control your fear. Simply draw your breath in at a normal rate, and exhale fully, using all of your lung capacity. Notice that you can breathe fully without obstruction. This technique will keep you calm as the SP runs its course and then you will wake up without any trouble. A few moments of focused breathing with a strong intention to wake up is effective.
6. Lean into Love to Find Courage
Now is also the time to lean into unconditional love. For many, the surest path is in religious or spiritual beliefs. Regardless, focus on a figure that you admire and love. Think of someone who calms you down—someone who you associate with peace, love and safety. This could be Jesus, the Dali Lama, or someone you know personally. In my first SP nightmare when I was fourteen years old, I thought about the love and respect I had for a girl in my class. Embarrassing but true! It worked: the feelings of oppression and evil dissipated immediately. In this case, true love really does conquer all.
7. Getting Help from your Sleep Partner
If someone shares your bed, you can tell them about your SP attacks and what to look for when you are having a nightmare. For example, my wife used to shake me awake whenever I began to breath heavily and irregularly in my sleep. As it turns out, she was waking me up each and every time from an intense SP nightmare. Now when this happens, I tell her not to wake me up, because I actually use SP to go into a lucid dream.
You could also have your partner respond to a verbal request. This only works some of the time, because some people cannot speak in paralysis. But some can. Choose a short word that is easy to say. “Help” is a good choice. When you’re in paralysis, focus your attention on your throat and say “Help.” Don’t try to say it as loud as you can; what may happen is that your imagination will take over and you will only say the word in your dream. Instead, say it forcefully but without screaming.
8. Coughing for Help
A variation of using your voice is to try to cough into wakefulness. Like breathing, coughing can be autonomic or consciously regulated. By coughing on purpose, you can jar yourself awake.
9. Write out the Plan
The suggestions above all have helped hundreds of people get out of SP and get some sleep. Not every tactic will work with you. But having too many tactics in your mind can actually be counterproductive. So it is important to make a plan, almost like the fire escape plan you may have for evacuating your family home in case of emergency. Write it out; this will cement the plan in your mind and make it easier to remember when the paralysis comes on strong.
10. The Ultimate Method I know — I said 9 ways, but this is the single best way to wake up from sleep paralysis and it’s really in a class of it’s own. When you realize you are in SP, scrunch up your face. In other words, make a face like you just smelled something bad. Snarl and squint. Do this two or three times in a row and the paralysis will break IMMEDIATELY. I’m not sure why it is so effective, but unlike the pinky wiggle, this method is foolproof.
After you wake up, get out of bed immediately and turn on a light. Wash your face with cold water. If you just stay in bed, the chance of sliding right back into sleep paralysis is pretty high.