can't move

Hi Rebecca—

The formal name for what you are experiencing is Sleep Paralysis, and fortunately, it is not dangerous or even anything to be overly disturbed by. During each of our REM (dreaming) periods of sleep, the body becomes temporarily paralyzed so that we don’t act out our dreams. Occasionally when we wake up after dreaming, though, our bodies don’t wake up with us—they “stay asleep.” When this happens, we give commands for movement to our bodies, but our bodies won’t respond. Naturally this is disturbing and we can panic—we fear we will never get our movement back. These experiences usually are ended by a bed partner touching the body and nudging it to full wakefulness, or, as in your case, by a seemingly superhuman effort by the dreamer to awaken.

Sometimes we only partially arouse while the body stays paralyzed, and we continue dreaming. This is when sleep paralysis is very confusing. For example, we can awaken and see the outlines of our room, but then we may also dream that we see an intruder. Intruder dreams are common in conjunction with sleep paralysis, and they are known to be exceptionally frightening.

Occasions of sleep paralysis typically are infrequent enough—and of short enough duration when they do occur—that sleep doctors do not prescribe medication to prevent them. Sleep paralysis can be annoying and frightening, but most physicians prescribe relaxation during the event, coupled with a patient will to awaken oneself.

The trick to getting comfortable with these experiences is to recognize that they are
entirely natural. They last only a minute or two (most last only a few seconds), and no one has ever “stayed paralyzed.” Try to keep yourself calm during the experience. Also, after you get more comfortable, you may even try to enjoy these periods of consciousness mixed with REM sleep—known as lucid dreaming—and see if you can’t make a happy ending to your dream…

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