Sleep Paralysis: The unspoken mental health issue

28 per cent of us have it


Imagine waking up and not being able to move.

Not an arm, a leg, not even a toe. You hear someone laughing or a scream. You feel a hand slowly wrap around your wrist and suddenly snap it across your chest. Someone sits on your stomach and you can feel their entire weight pressing against your body. They start breathing against your neck: But nobody is there. You can’t call out, you can’t even whisper: You are completely paralysed for a few painfully and torturing long minutes.

No, you’re not possessed or the victim of paranormal activity. Instead, you’ve just experienced one of the least understood and least spoken about health issues: Sleep Paralysis. It affects less than 8 per cent of the population, but 28 per cent of students.

The horrifying truth is that over a quarter of us suffer from it, and many of us don’t even know it. At the age of 21, it might be your first time, and you might absolutely no idea what it is.

You’ve never even heard of it before, and may be too scared to ask your friends. But, it doesn’t make you weird, and the likelihood is one of your housemates has experienced something similar.

Toby Rankin, a first year linguist at Collingwood, spoke to The Tab: “My experience was essentially one of complete terror. I ‘woke’ up one day during the summer, I don’t recall exactly when, and felt trapped within my own body.

“I could move my eyes but couldn’t make a sound. I was completely aware, which probably made the experience worse, and as you can probably imagine, you’re brain starts racing through the possibilities of what it might be.”

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The severity of the experience varies, from intensely real hallucinations, to complete silence and you just can’t move your legs for a few seconds. It can happen as you fall asleep, or as you wake up. Either way, it’s bloody terrifying, especially for those who don’t know what’s happening.

Doctors believe students to be particularly vulnerable to Sleep Paralysis. Will Bolton, a final year medic at Leeds University, told The Tab:  “Essentially, students are at a predisposition to this condition because of their age and generally poor and erratic sleeping habits.

“Having too little sleep, around deadlines or going out too much, as well as poor ‘sleep hygiene’ including watching TV or using computer screens before bed and drinking alcohol can increase the risk of experiencing sleep paralysis.

A little bit of yoga helps

“Problems with sleep and their impact are often underestimated, particularly amongst the young and student community.

“Problems with sleep are far more common than many think, and talking about them and seeking help has some stigma attached.

“If you are concerned at all, or are suffering from significant sleep disturbance or mood disturbance, then speaking to your doctor would be your first port of call.”

It’s no surprise students  who drink too much and are under the stress of deadlines and exams, triggering high levels of anxiety, are particularly vulnerable.

There’s no definite way to avoid sleep paralysis, although a good nights sleep is a good place to start. Stay off the caffeine and alcohol for a while and try out the Yoga class you always walk past.

All opinions expressed by Will are his own, and are unaffiliated with Leeds University and the Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust