Sleep paralysis is a sort of bridge between the worlds. It is a status when we find ourselves in the middle between sleep and wakefulness. It is sometimes called sleep plegia. It is a short-term condition in which the body is unable of movement, skeletal muscles are as if paralysed, weakened, but the affected person is conscious. A typical symptom is that the person cannot move their limbs or torso, but breathing and eye movements remain normal. Such a condition is truly unpleasant and even terrifying for many people.
The paralysis hits when falling asleep (hypnagogic) or waking up (hypnopompic). Physiologically, this condition of sleep paralysis is related to the paralysis naturally occurring during the dream-phase of sleep (REM sleep - so-called REM atonia). Our brain is working efficiently throughout the REM phase, but the body should be asleep - i.e. should not move. This atonia prevents our "dream movements" from projecting into our physical bodies, i.e. prevents us from hurting ourselves in our sleep. When we suddenly wake up in this phase, our brain thinks we are still asleep, and the body remains paralysed.
Sleep Paralysis and Hallucinations
Hallucinations may occur during the sleep paralysis. We may see images, perceive presence of other people in the room, hear strange noises. People often feel they are being watched even when they are alone in the room. They often have trouble breathing. Some people describe states when they feel as if "something", e.g. a heavy rock, was lying on their chest or that there is even an unidentified creature sitting on their chest. The paralysis may take from several seconds to several minutes (some sources state even one hour). Sleep paralysis is usually considered a sleep disorder. Every tenth person has experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their life and every thousandth person experiences it repeatedly, even several times a year. The frequency of sleep paralysis occurrence is mainly stress; however, the reasons may also be fatigue, post-fatigue states, phobias, cold in the room, illness, etc. It is often a combination of such factors - e.g. cold, irregular diet, irregular life rhythm, etc.
Sleep Paralysis Triggers and Risk Factors
- Frequent stress, high stress, post-stress conditions
- Irregular diet and irregular life rhythm
- Lack of sleep and rest, dozing off during the day
- Sleep with high pillows underneath the head
- Immediately after a lucid dream (Lucid dreams are a special type of dreams during which the affected person clearly realises they are dreaming. This fact is entirely characteristic for these states and therefore constitutes what makes lucid dreams different from ordinary dreams. The realisation that our consciousness is in the state of dreaming while the body is sleeping is literally a spring board to conscious experience of many extraordinary experiences according to our own imagination.)
If the sleep paralysis surprises you, it is suitable to move your eyes or facial muscles a little. In such a state, people usually focus on the hands and legs, but these tend to be entirely paralysed. If you recognise the sleep paralysis, try to remain calm, do not panic and wait peacefully until the condition passes.
Sleep Paralysis Legends
Sleep paralysis is sometimes called "the old witch syndrome". This name stems from the fact that people affected by it often describe perceiving another, possibly supernatural being near them and at the same time they suffered from feelings of suffocation and pressure on the chest. In Africa, sleep paralysis is described as the witch that slides down the stricken person's back. The Chinese culture speaks about a spirit pushing a man into his bed. The Japanese call such a condition kanashibari, meaning "tied" or even "bound in chains". In Turkey, the name is karabasan - the dark press. Legends describe a creature that attacks people in their sleep, pushing on their chests and knocking the air out of them. In Greece and Cyprus, people believed that sleep paralysis occurs at the moment when a spirit with animal appearance is trying to steal the gift of speech from his victim or to sit on the victim's chest trying to suffocate them. This spirit was called "Mora" which is a similar name people in Iceland use: "Mara". In Vietnam, the "Grey Ghost" comes at night and kidnaps his victims to take them far beyond the mountains. In Zanzibar, the terrible Popobawa presses itself on people's chests while they sleep, making them scream without actually making a noise.
Sleep Paralysis and Arts
Demons coming during sleep at night to torture a poor person are a common sight with artist across centuries. Apart from sleep paralysis, artworks involve also other sleep disorders, mainly night terrors and nightmares. Francisco Goya is a typical representative of a sleep-paralysis-tortured artist. His symptoms were typical. He used to wake up very early in the morning, with a feeling of his entire body being paralysed, and he caught a sight of a creature coming to him in the corner of his eye. A long, extended clawed black hand gripped his face. It was a terrible experience, Goya woken up from the paralysis jumped up in terror and then realised that it was his own hand. Sleep paralysis and night terrors also tormented the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, Swiss painter Henry Fuseli and probably even Hieronymus Bosch.
Sleep Paralysis and Mystical Experience
The state when a person finds themselves in sleep paralysis is so weird and extraordinary that sometimes people who experienced it relate it to various experiences going beyond traditional consciousness. This state is usually accompanied by faster heartbeat, difficult breathing and terror. This feeling of terror only escalates because the paralysed person fully realises what is going on around them. The most terrifying symptom of the sleep paralysis is the feeling of a strange person in the room. At first it is a sort of feeling, but sometimes it happens that the paralysed person even sees someone. Its appearance is usually different from human; it tends to be animal, devil or extra-terrestrial. In this condition, people sometimes have experiences they later describe as kidnappings by UFO.
Other Sleep Disorders
Most common sleep disorders are:
- Somniloquy – sleep-talking.
- Somnambulism – the sleeping person is moving (sleep-walking). The person suffering from somnambulism may get up from the bed, walk around their flat or house, move or handle various objects, have their eyes open to avoid obstacles, but they are unable to realise consequences of their behaviour.
- Insomnia – inability to fall asleep, "bad sleeping". Its symptoms vary: e.g. frequent awakenings, quickly falling asleep, short periods of sleep, waking up early, inability to fall asleep (mainly in unfamiliar environment), shallow night sleep. A person lacking good sleep is overall tired during the day and is in a bad, pessimistic mood.
- Narcolepsy – pathological somnolence, repeated uncontrollable attacks of sleepiness. A person suffering from narcolepsy is able to fall asleep whenever, wherever. Narcoleptics fall asleep in the REM phase, they skip the NON REM phase. It is a very complex disorder that has not been fully clarified yet.
- Sleep apnoea – it is a temporary pause in breathing during sleep. In adults, it manifests with snoring; however it can be fatal in babies.
- Night terrors – the most frequent children's sleep disorder. The child screams from his/her sleep, terrified, often runs out of the bed, and doesn't recognize people around out of shock, cries for help. These children only get back to bed and fall asleep after woken up energetically. Causes of these disorders vary; they can be earlier bad experiences, mainly family problems (parents fighting, child getting humiliated, etc.).
Sleep Paralysis - Experience
Experiencing sleep paralysis is almost always very unpleasant. Those who experience it repeatedly may even be afraid to fall asleep; they are hesitant to fall asleep alone and dislike sleeping in unknown places. We may understand better the experience of sleep paralysis when we read stories of those who have undergone them:
"I have only recently discovered the reason of what is happening to me. After many years of living with the feeling that I'm "off" and that I can't tell anyone so they don't think I've gone mad. These states, which I would describe as physical assaults by an evil creature, were happening once in half a year, sometimes even every night. The whole experience was always very real. I thought I was awake and fully conscious, but paralysed with fear - petrified. Sometimes it's dragging you from the bed, sometimes it pushes you down, hits your back, shoulders, etc. You want to scream but you are unable to, you want to run, but you can't move a single muscle. Now that I know that they are (surprisingly for me) common experiences, my fear is somewhat diminished. At least I will know what's going on next time."
"I have been experiencing these states for about 15 years, approximately once in three months. It always begins the same way. I "wakeup" in the same position as when falling asleep, I see everything very real, even the details of the room. And all of a sudden, I get this feeling that I am not alone in the room, I have an intense perception of someone or "something" evil and I know for sure that "it" wants to hurt me. It may even happen that I see this "evil" in a form of a shadow, and that's when all the fun ends. I get strange buzzing in my ears and I hear sounds impossible to describe specifically (those of you who' have been through it know) and a feeling as if"something" began smothering me, pushing me onto the bed or dragging me away. At that moment, panic hits me and I realise I am completely paralysed. I want to fight back and scream, but I can't do anything. At the beginning, I was afraid to go to sleep to prevent the recurrent experience, but I have learned to control these states over time. As soon as the paralysis hits, you can do little else than keep repeating to yourself that nothing can happen to you, that it's gonna be over in a few seconds and try (even though it's very hard) to think about something positive. The more you resist, the more intense it all gets and the more panic hits you. You will wake up with totally exhausting subconscious effort to fight "it" off you, but keeping calm and "above it" helps wonderfully. I also found it very helpful to learn in various forums that many people suffer from these states even though they don't talk about it in public, because it may just sound very weird for those who have never been through it."
Are these experiences familiar to you? The stories of people with this experience are very similar to each other, and experiencing this state for the first time is terrifying almost for anyone. These "states" can be prevented by inducing peaceful sleep which is also related to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
How to Attract Peaceful Sleep?
- • Ventilated bedroom
- • Calming colours
- • Do not drink coffee or tea at least an hour before you go to sleep
- • Enjoy a bath with lavender or jasmine before you go to sleep
- • Before you go to sleep, loosen your mind by relaxation, meditation, rest - e.g. by sitting by a candle or aromatic lamp for a while.
- • If you fail to fall asleep within 20 minutes after going to bed, try getting up and reading something pleasant; don't wait for the sleep too long.
Do you also have a terrifying experience with sleep paralysis? Share your story with us - you are not alone in this!