Sleep is a universal need for all humans. It is one of the few things we share in common with the entirety of humanity. Hence, as a writer, it is likely that you will eventually describe sleep in writing.
However, not all sleep is equal and some of your characters might have sleep disorders. One of the most frightening ones is sleep paralysis. Creative writing about sleep paralysis can definitely help in creating a compelling plot or can aid in developing your character’s self-defining moments.
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So, What exactly is sleep Paralysis?
For those who have already experienced it, sleep paralysis can be a chilling affair. Just as you are about to fall asleep or about to wake up from your nap, your limbs refuse to cooperate, your breath shortens and you start to panic. Why can’t you move anymore? Why can’t you scream?
If it wasn’t enough, you start to see things. Someone or something is approaching you and there is nothing you can do other than be afraid.
Sleep paralysis is a temporary state in which you are in between a state of wakefulness and a state of sleep. Usually, as you are either about to fall asleep or about to wake up, your body experiences atonia, which is a loss of muscle control. Usually, atonia happens whilst you’re still unconscious or dreaming. But, in sleep paralysis, you are consciously awake, but your body has not yet caught up to your mind.
Sleep paralysis is considered to be a type of parasomnia that occurs during REM sleep. In REM sleep, you experience both vivid dreams and atonia which prevents you from hurting yourself by re-enacting your dreams. However, when you wake, usually both the dreams and the atonia cease. Hence, you are never consciously aware of the muscle paralysis you experience.
In sleep paralysis, when you wake, both the dreams (which are now considered hallucinations) and the atonia persevere.
Types of sleep paralysis
There are two main types of sleep paralysis that your character can experience:
Isolated sleep paralysis: When one experiences sleep paralysis without it being connected to any other medical conditions (such as narcolepsy).
Recurrent sleep paralysis: When one experiences sleep paralysis multiple times over a long period.
What causes sleep paralysis?
If you want to include sleep paralysis in your story, you might want to explain why it is happening to your character and what are the causes. Unfortunately, there is currently no known cause for sleep paralysis.
However, there is still a lot of ongoing research on the subject that suggests a link between certain other disorders and sleep paralysis.
Research has shown a correlation between people who experience sleep apnea and those who experience sleep paralysis. Sleep apnea is also a sleep disorder that involves brief interruptions in one’s breathing during sleep.
Other sleep issues that are correlated with sleep paralysis include Insomnia, jet lag, and narcolepsy.
Certain mental illnesses such as anxiety and PTSD have also been shown to have a positive correlation with experiences of sleep paralysis.
If you are writing a character that is creative, imaginative, and is often “in the clouds”, they have a higher chance of experiencing sleep paralysis.
In an article written by sleep foundation, they wrote that:
“Some studies have found that people who show traits of imaginativeness and disassociating from their immediate environment, such as with daydreaming, are more likely to experience sleep paralysis”
Remember that although you can use the above information to hypothesize why sleep paralysis is happening to your character, you can’t explicitly say what is causing your character’s sleep disorder because there is not enough research on the subject.
Can your character get help for their sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis can happen once and then never happen again. In a case like this, you won’t need to write about your character seeking treatment.
However, for some, sleep paralysis can become a more serious issue.
Some people experience these episodes so frequently that they develop anxiety when thinking about sleep because they know that they may experience sleep paralysis. If this is the case for your character, it would make sense for them to seek treatment.
At the moment, there are not many treatment options available for recurrent sleep paralysis. The most common way to improve symptoms is to improve sleep hygiene (developing healthier sleep habits) which includes:
- Having a set time to go to bed (this “trains” your body to get tired at a specific hour)
- Avoiding phones, laptops etc. before bed
- Avoiding too much caffeine right before bed
- Sleeping in room with ideal temperature
Sometimes cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to help develop healthy sleep hygiene and avoid negative thoughts that can plague one’s mind at night.
If your characters’ sleep paralysis is related to an underlying condition such as narcolepsy, then a medical professional might prescribe medication such as SSRIs (ex: Prozac). This will help treat the narcolepsy and, in turn, might help with the sleep paralysis episodes.
How to Describe sleep in Writing: Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis is different for everyone. For some, it involves seeing a faceless shadow in the corner whilst others have described a demon sitting on their chest, suffocating them. Hence when it comes to writing about your character’s sleep paralysis experiences, you have creative control over what you want them to experience.
However, what is common with most sleep paralysis experiences is the fear and anxiety that is felt in those moments. As a writer, you must capture the right ‘feeling’. A great tip to do that is to read how real people describe their experiences with sleep paralysis.
Here are a couple of examples:
“Sleep paralysis is, without a doubt, the scariest shit I have ever experienced and will likely ever experience. That feeling when you’re convinced there’s something standing over you while you’re trying with every fiber of your being to move any muscle is truly terrifying. I remember waking up wailing incoherently the first time I experienced it.”
“I had the sudden urge to wake up one night, and as much as I tried to open my eyes I couldn’t. Couldn’t move my body and I could only get my eyes open for about a split-second. Each time I opened them I could see a figure getting closer and closer to my bed, until I think I woke myself up out of fear as I don’t remember what happened after it got about 2 ft. away from me.
I was 16 when it happened to me and I had no clue what it was so for a few weeks I was convinced that the house was haunted. I did not sleep well, or without a light on. It wasn’t until I told my mum about it that she said it sounded like sleep paralysis.”
“I always see something peeking over the end of the mattress, then standing up and just staring at me. Sometimes it touches my feet, and I can actually feel fingernails going up and down my toes. I never see it’s face though because it’s completely black. Literally the creepiest shit that ever happens.”