Ever Wake Up Frozen in the Middle of the Night, With a Shadowy Figure in the Room?

4 min
'The Nightmare,' by Henry Fuseli, 1781.  (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Editor's note: The following story was produced by Richmond High School students for Youth Takeover week at KQED.

Imagine you’re asleep and you suddenly open your eyes. You try to reposition yourself, but something's wrong. Your body won't move, and it's as if something is holding you down. You hear scratching in the corner of the room, then see a pitch-black figure. You think it's just your mind playing tricks, until the figure starts moving, slowly. It's getting closer. You shut your eyes, but you can hear it shuffling toward you.

This is what sleep paralysis is like.

Sleep paralysis usually occurs when you’re, well, asleep, says Allen Jenkins, a psychology teacher at Richmond High School.

“Your brain is telling you to go to sleep and to not move, because when you walk around in your sleep, that’s not good," he said. "But some people have a problem with that not turning off. So when they wake up, they still can’t move.”

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People undergoing sleep paralysis might also feel pressure on their chest, a sense of dread and difficulty taking a breath. Some people also report experiencing hallucinations, like a shadowy figure in the darkness.

Even if a person experiences stimulation that doesn't come from their environment, it can still happen within their brain.  

“Everything you experience is perception. Your processing in your brain can be overactive," Jenkins said. “You can think of it like dreaming when you're wide awake. It seems real to you, but it just doesn’t happen to be occurring.”

Leslie Saechao, a student at Richmond High School, has experienced sleep paralysis. “I felt like I saw something in the dark.  It was like a figure,” she said.

Nayeli Pena, Yvette Villicana and Evelyn Mendoza, Richmond High School students.

Saechao recalls lying in bed awake past midnight, feeling "paralyzed," and seeing a blurry figure.

The incident has made her "paranoid" about sleeping, so she covers her face at night.

"I sleep next to the wall so I won’t see anything," she said.

Sleep paralysis can occur as you fall asleep or as you wake up. It goes away by itself after a few seconds or a few minutes. People who experience this are usually in their teens, 20s and 30s.

Researchers believe sleep paralysis happens when someone's sleep cycle is disrupted, and especially when they're in a dream state. This occurs in the rapid eye movement or REM stage of sleep, and can be caused by anxiety and stress.

Yvette Villicaña first experienced sleep paralysis when she was in middle school.

"It's not as overwhelming for me as other people, because I don’t see shadowy figures," she said.  "I try to move, but sometimes I can’t. And after some time, it does go away. I used to think I was the only one who experienced this."

After working on this story for KQED's "Youth Takeover," Villicaña says it’s good to know she's not alone, but it's tough to realize other people have more traumatic experiences because of their hallucinations.

Sleep paralysis is harmless by itself but can lead to insomnia or narcolepsy, a more serious condition that causes uncontrollable sleepiness during the day.

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You can try to stop sleep paralysis by avoiding naps and not sleeping on your back, because it makes you feel vulnerable.  Consult a mental health professional for stress or anxiety. And if it doesn’t go away, seek help from a sleep specialist. 

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