Most of us have the occasional nightmare, but sleep paralysis—a strange purgatory between sleep and wakefulness in which you feel wide awake but can’t move and sometimes experience hallucinations—is far less common. The reported prevalence varies, but researchers estimate that the phenomenon affects at least 7% of people worldwide, and iCarly actor Miranda Cosgrove is one of them, she recently revealed on The Kelly Clarkson Show.
Cosgrove was visiting Clarkson to discuss Mission Unstoppable, her educational series for teens in which she profiles women working in STEM (an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, in case you didn’t know). When the “Breakaway” singer asked Cosgrove about her favorite topic covered in the series, she said a sleep paralysis segment hit close to home.
“I’ve experienced sleep paralysis before. I don’t know if that’s ever happened to you guys,” she told Clarkson and fellow guest Djimon Hounsou. ”It’s where you wake up—your eyes are open and you’re lying in bed—but you’re asleep, so your dreams that you’re having seem like they’re happening in the room you’re in. Like, your eyes are open, but you can’t move.”
“That’s terrifying. Have you ever experienced that?” Clarkson asked Hounsou, who said he, indeed, had experienced “something similar” in which he seemed “asleep briefly” but “wide awake” while feeling “paralyzed in the bed.”
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sleep paralysis occurs during or while shifting out of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a stage in which some muscles are temporarily paralyzed—also known as muscle atonia. When it happens, consciousness resumes, but your body remains unable to move.
Episodes also often involve hallucinations, usually of a dangerous person or presence in the room, as well as feelings of chest pressure perceived as suffocation, per the NIH. Research shows sleep paralysis lasts for about six minutes on average but can be anywhere from seconds to 20 minutes long (!). According to Mount Sinai, the paralyzation usually ends on its own or at the feeling of another person’s touch.
Sleep paralysis has no known direct cause, per the NIH, but mental health conditions including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as factors such as sleep hygiene and family history, are all potential contributors.
“It’s so scary,” Cosgrove told Clarkson. “The best thing you can do is have a really set sleep schedule and try to really stick to it, because it usually happens when you’re stressed or really tired.”
The NIH corroborates that advice and also recommends a comfortable sleep environment with little light, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol (especially in the evenings), and avoiding screens—from phones, laptops, TVs—for at least 30 minutes before bed.
After hearing Cosgrove and Hounsou’s stories, Clarkson was relieved to report that she’s never had an episode of sleep paralysis, despite living a relatively busy, stressful life. “I’ve never experienced that,” she said. “So maybe I’m doing alright.”