Sleep paralysis, stress and me

Article written by Lisa Marie Sheehy – Independent councillor at Limerick City and County Council.

From my early teens due to life events I went through as a young person, I became depressed, anxious, suicidal and I would get panic attacks. However, sleep paralysis has not received sufficient attention in the media and it is something I have battled with since I was 14.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is described accurately by “Have you ever awakened from a deep sleep and then found that you could not move or speak? You could see and sense things in the room but you could not move. This frightening condition is known as Isolated Sleep Paralysis (ISP)”. I experienced massive torment every night afraid to go to sleep because I knew I would get it. Generally, it would happen when stressed and under pressure with school or college exams.

I remember breaking down in tears in the doctor’s office pleading for them to help me one day around my Leaving Cert because I had got sleep paralysis every night for a full week. I was so drained and needed answers on what I could do about it. However, there wasn’t really much known about it by healthcare professionals. When I would talk to friends explaining what was happening to me they would say “Oh I got that once before” which would ease me a small bit. But why was I getting it so regularly and so severely – the answer was stress.

Sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis occurs when transitioning through different stages of sleep.

My experiences of sleep paralysis

In the dark of night, not long after I had fallen asleep I would wake up and be fully aware of where I was but I could not move my body and it felt like there was someone heavy pressing down on my chest. There would also be a pulling on my legs or sometimes I could feel everything that happened me in a dream. I have felt everything from being in a car driving off a cliff to being raped by whatever this presence was. I couldn’t breathe, I tried to scream but no one could hear.

There was one time where I was having sleep paralysis when my cousin was in the same room and all she could hear was me gasping for air. It would only get worse when I fought it, so I would have to try and lay there until it passed. When I could finally move again, I was sometimes in physical pain and very drained from the pulling of my legs. Sometimes I would get it more than once a night and would try to pour water on my face to try and keep myself awake. The reality was that it only lasted a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours.

Potential solutions to sleep paralysis

I looked for answers everywhere, on the internet, from doctors, counsellors and even a medium as it felt like something evil was coming into my room at night. It was so frightening when I didn’t know what it was, but the more reading I did and the more investigation I carried out in my own life the conclusion I came to is that this is how stress manifests itself in my case. Throughout the years, I have learned how to effectively manage my stress. Everyone has different things that work for them, but here are mine which might be of benefit to someone:

  1. To-do lists – They keep me focused and I don’t worry about forgetting anything.
  2. Counselling – I try to go as much as possible and I take breaks every now and then to see if I can cope without it for a while to test myself.
  3. Medication – I only recently started long-term medication for anxiety as I could not cope daily without it with a constant fear of everything and chest pains. Some people advise against medication, but if it works for you it’s your decision.
  4. I have made a point of telling close friends and family about my issues – I do this simply to have a backup for myself in case I need someone to talk to and that I don’t have to explain everything before I go into what’s wrong with me now. I did this with school, college etc., so that in every place I was in it was easier to talk about it with that person when overwhelmed.

About me

Currently, I am an independent councillor on Limerick City and County Council and I am finishing my Masters in Community and Voluntary Sector Management at University College Cork which is quite stressful to manage. However, I feel that if you work on yourself and get your coping mechanisms right, you can face whatever comes at you even if it’s your own subconscious taunting you at night.