For many college students, sleep is something they wish they had more of. However, some students may feel that finding sleep isn’t the hard part, but the figures that haunt their nightly rest.
Lauren Fuselier is a sophomore accounting major at UL Lafayette, and she shared her long history with sleep paralysis.
An individual experiencing sleep paralysis might feel as if they have woken up, but cannot move their body, a result of certain parts of their brain waking up during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Fuselier said she’s had sleep paralysis for as long as she can remember; she had her earliest episode when she was only 3 years old.
“I didn’t know what the hell was going on; I was absolutely terrified,” Fuselier said. “And I mean, it was bad enough because I was afraid of the dark — because, you know, all little kids are afraid of the dark.”
Sleep Medicine Reviews published a systematic review on sleep paralysis back in 2012, in which they found that 7.6% of the sampled general population had experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime.
The review added that sleep paralysis was more common in student populations and psychiatric patient populations.
“It’s different for some people, because some people can open their eyes and some people can breathe, but I can’t,” Fuselier said. “It’s almost like I’m stuck there holding my breath until I can move; I just have to focus on one part of my body and try to wiggle out of it.”
When Fuselier says she tries to “wiggle out of it,” she is referring to a common wake-up method. It involves focusing on moving one’s fingers and toes and slowly getting control of more and more parts of their body until their full body eventually wakes up.
One of the most universal and identifiable experiences with sleep paralysis is that of horrific visions; people who have had episodes often talk of seeing dark figures or even demons while they lie in bed unable to move.
Fuselier described how, even though she is unable to open her eyes during an episode, she can, at times, feel a dark presence with her in the room.
“I think that all stems from the imagination, because you don’t know what’s happening to you so you automatically assume the worst,” Fuselier said.
Although her early episodes were frightening, Fuselier continued to stress that learning about it helped her adjust to it.
“Growing up with this, I had to sleep with my parents for the longest time ‘cause I was so terrified,” Fuselier said. “So like, I’m like 13 years old and I still sleep with my mom in her room, because that’s where I felt the safest.”
It was in high school that Fuselier began to research what sleep paralysis was, but, she added, for some time her mother did not believe Fuselier when she tried to explain what sleep paralysis was — that is until her mother experienced it for herself.
“I think right after I found out what sleep paralysis was I started sleeping by myself, and for some reason my mom wanted me to sleep with her (one) night,” Fuselier said. “And I just remember her waking up in the middle of the night, like catching her breath and terrified saying she couldn’t move, she couldn’t move; she didn’t know what the hell was going on with her.”
UL Lafayette counselor Ashley Reed, M.A., discussed what kinds of sleeping habits her student clients generally have.
“College students as a whole, you know, there’s a lot of lack of sleep going on — lots of late night studying, working on projects, hanging out with friends, whatnot,” Reed said. “Some of that’s just temporary for this population, but if it’s something else that’s interfering in the client’s quality of life, you know, we would look at, well, ‘What can we do about this to improve your quality of sleep?’”
Reed added that “sleep and mental health are closely connected,” and that being sleep-deprived can make a person more irritable or emotionally vulnerable.
“It’s not unusual for clients with anxiety and depression to have sleep problems as well,” she said.
As for establishing a healthy sleep routine, she recommended about six hours of sleep a night, no alcohol or caffeine consumption before bed, winding down or relaxing for about 20 minutes before bed and going to sleep around the same time every night.
Fuselier added restless leg syndrome and stress as contributors to sleep paralysis, as well as the consumption of some ADHD medication, all of which she experiences.
But, as Fuselier said, it isn’t as bad as it seems. Although in the early stages of life it made her afraid to sleep, Fuselier said that her awareness and research have helped her adjust to the episodes.
“It’s kind of almost a mind-over-matter thing,” Fuselier said. “I mean as a kid, being afraid to fall asleep, you have to make yourself think happy thoughts and just not think about it. Nowadays it’s more of, I’m not so worried about it because I know what it is and I know how to get out of it.”