Sleep Paralysis: A Special Kind of Nightmare

This painting by John Henry Fuseli "The Nightmare" is believed to depict Hypongogic Sleep Paralysis.
This painting by John Henry Fuseli is believed to depict a woman experiencing “Hallucinatory Sleep Paralysis”

Imagine the feeling:  You have gone to sleep normally enough, but for some reason that you aren’t quite sure of, you have woken up.  It is dark, but somehow you can sense a shadowy presence, right there in the room with you.  You want to move but you realise you are paralysed.  The frightening creature seems to be sitting right on your chest.  You are terrified, it has a strange sense of threat and foreboding, even evil.  You want to shout and scream for help but no sound escapes your lips.  In sheer panic you struggle to move, to get away, but it is useless.  Finally, in terror, you manage to move and the creature vanishes. Sitting up in the dark, heart pounding, breath coming fast, you feel confused and disorientated, a strange vibrating in your ears fading away.  You wonder, was that just a dream?

This experience is known as “Hallucinatory (or Hypnagogic/Hypnopompic) Sleep Paralysis,” (or HSP) and is considered a “sleep disorder.”  Technically, it is not a nightmare at all.  One theory is that the paralysis is caused by waking while in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, which is when we most commonly dream. In order to stop our bodies from acting out our dreams, our brain paralyses our bodies (except for our eyes) while in this stage.  So the theory goes, when we for some as yet unknown reason, wake before our brains or bodies are ready to, we may find ourselves paralysed and this induces a sense of panic.  Fair enough.  But I have yet to find a convincing explanation as to why this paralysis is accompanied by hallucinations.  (There is a theory being developed regarding the amyglada of the brain and predatory fear response I will update as it becomes available.)

But this is where it gets confusing, and why it can be so disturbing to experience.  Because it is not a dream.  The person experiencing the Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis has actually woken up.  They are actually paralysed.  And when they sense a presence in the room, or on the bed, or sitting on their chest, this is a hallucination and not a dream.  Yet even if you know it is a hallucination, it doesn’t make the experience feel any less real.  Which is kind of like a dream.  Confusing, right?  Terrifying to most as well.

Speaking as one who has experienced Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis, I can attest to the extreme malevolence of the presence in the room.  This was no mere scary creature.  This was evil intent manifest.  This was not something that intended to kill me, but something that would obliterate my very soul.  And to experience this and know it was not a dream!  Manifest evil is not something I am given to commonly contemplating, nor have I grown up with religious fear of hell.  So this image and theme came as a disturbing revelation.

I have attempted to research this experience, and am somewhat reassured by how common it is.  HSP is described in various cultures through-out the world, appearing in myths, legends and stories variously as a hag or witch who jumps on your chest or back, an evil imp or demonic creature, ogre or spirit.  Invariably, they are described as one who “crushes,” “leaps upon,” “presses,” “chokes,” or “steals breath.”   One theory today is that we use a cultural reference to try and make sense of whatever the scary presence is.  So if you live in the Caribbean and have a culture of witches for example, you may think of the presence as an evil witch hag, if you have a strong religious background you may interpret the visit as a demon, a fallen angel or even the devil himself, traditional Europeans often thought of the presence as a ghost and Africans as a demon.  There is even the belief now that the experience of alien abductions is in fact an experience of HSP, and that people exposed to information about aliens and space travel will use this cultural reference to make sense of their experience.  This is not something people do consciously, or on purpose, but happens at a very subliminal level, where our perceptions of reality, and the foundations of our beliefs are formed.

If you have experienced Sleep Paralysis coupled with the extreme hallucination as I have, you may find the scientific attempts to “explain away” the experience somewhat dissatisfying.  As one who believes in the value of dreams, the rich rewards from knowing ourselves deeply and exploring our inner worlds, to have such a significant experience be explained as “simply a hallucination” feels disappointingly hollow.  It is the same as someone saying to me when I have an exhilarating lucid dream of flying that it is “just a dream.”  Well yes, on one level it is.  But it is also something much more.  I am looking for more insight.  Why does the hallucination accompany the Sleep Paralysis?  Why is the hallucination the same for hundreds of thousands of people around the world over countless generations, regardless of culture, religion or belief system?  What does it mean?  How can we learn from it?  What does it have to do with my psychology and physiology?  Science and psychology is still really in such early stages of undersatnding sleep and dreams, that these and many other questions seem to remain as yet unanswered.

We do know that certain triggers seem to bring on HSP experience, so there a few things you can do to prevent them from returning:

  • Don’t go to sleep on your back
  • Try and reduce stress, a major trigger for HSP
  • Try and keep a regular sleep pattern.  Overtiredness, late nights and irregular sleeping hours may be a contributing cause
  • If you are having an attack and can’t move, try moving small muscles like fingers, toes, tongue or even your eyes instead of entire limbs.  This can be enough to break the episode.
  • Speak to your doctor.  Some medication has helped some people, so this may be an opiton worth exploring if your sleep is being disrupted frequently and causing you to function ineffectively during the day
  • Find places to talk to people about it, or write to me here!  The terror usually diminishes in the light of day, but knowing how common and widespread this experience is can be very reassuring!
  • Research is also showing that sleep deprivation, interrupted sleep cycles and sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and Restless Leg Syndrome may also contribute to the occurrence of Sleep Paralysis, so you may wish to consider having these conditions addressed to help minimise your experiences

I am currently in the process of developing some guidelines as to how to combat these experiences from a more experiential, belief based approach. If you would like to share you experiences I would love to hear from you!

The following links may prove useful:
http://www.nightterrors.org/dis.htm
https://www.sleepassociation.org/patients-general-public/hallucinations-during-sleep/

 

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29 Comments

  1. I expierenced this for the first time last night and the hallucinations were redciulously vivid, both visual and tactile. I thought I was awaking from a bad dream in my room when I saw what I thought must be my mother checking on me. In an instant whatever it was, call it ghost demon, whatever you want, seemed to instantly be kneeling down on my chest. Not only was the being making it impossible too move, but they also placed one “hand” over my mouth, and another on my throat, pushing as hard as universally possible. And what was said earlier in this writing, know that the begin doesnt just want to kill you, but it is ABSOLUTE evil and terror and unweilding in its attempt to literally suck your soul out of your body. I felt this terrifying pull as i was being choked and knew that if I didnt somehow get out of there I would die. The instant I woke up I had the classic symptom on sitting right up and screaming “WHAT THE ****”. I have tried to find some meaning to this but cannot. I am only posting because for some reason it seems I had a much more severe hallucination than those written of above. I don’t know how to go about all this now..

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  2. Hi Somebody! I hope you find some reassurance that if in writing of shared experiences above, I somehow seemed to dilute them, then was not my intention. I know that when you have such an experience, it can feel like it will be with you forever. I was so disappointed that no-one seemed to “get” what I was referring to when I had my own first personal experience, that it was one of the triggers that lead me to study dreams in more detail. I would be more than happy to discuss this with you in more detail if you like, and explain some measures beyond the normal advice that have helped give me confidence in addressing this experience.
    (I am sorry that due to large amounts of spam I have to remove my email from this post. If you would like to contact me personally please visit my website: http://www.thedreamwell.com)

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  3. hi, what ive read as been helpful, thankyou. but this horrible thing happened to me just as i was falling asleep, i know because of the time. its now lunchtime the day after and im still frightened and panicy.
    what happened i thought i could hear patter of feet on the wooden floor and remember thinking it cant be the dog shes in the other room, next thing i sensed pure evil spirits in the room, couldnt see it but its presence was terrifying and you feel it, i had a sensation run from my feet right through my body like a chill, i was struggling to move and must of been trying to shout as suddenly i was lying there trying to pull myself from the bed my jaw was stretched as a sudden moan of fear came from my mouth.
    my heart was beating so fast i was crying and shouting to my partner that i was going mad, it felt like the chill yhat ran hrough my body was the evil in my soul,. and thats why i was thinking i was going mad when i was going through the panic attack it brought on, my boyfriend was going to take me to hospital as i thought i was going mad and the evil spirit was in me and controlliong the panic attack.
    wow im exhausted. it did happen to me several times many years ago, i had people pray in my house (different house) . i dont know what to believe it is im terrified.

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  4. Hi Tracey! What a terrifying experience for you! While there are no proven reasons as to what causes these extreme feelings of panic and distress in sleep and on the edge of waking and sleeping, there are some measure you can take to help address these sensations.
    1. Look at causes for underlying anxiety in your life. The world feels very unstable to many people right now, are you worried about losing your job, paying bills, a relationship with someone? These feelings can be carried in our body as fear, and when our subconscious mind wants to show us we have “fear” inside us, it might use an elaborate device such as a panic attack, a cold chill or sense of evil to do this. Finding ways to alleviate the original cause, taking up relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation can help.
    2. Try some dream work to start to gain more control over what goes on in your subconscious. Try writing and understanding your other normal dreams. Then you will start to feel like dreams aren’t total strangers to you. You can also try asking your subconscious to give you dreams you want. Try to dream of say, your boyfriend, your favourite place etc. This will start to give you confidence that you can influence your dreams. Finally, try to lucid dream. (I have a separate few postst on this) Once you realise you can have control of what happens in your dreams, these things won’t seem as scary. This may sound like nonsense, but trust me – this comes from someone who has tried!
    3. All these things may take too long to get a quick result. For something more immediate, try performing a ritual. You spoke of prayers, that may help. I am not sure if you are religious, but if not, you could try a cleansing ceremony. Burn some incense, sweep the room and ceilings with a duster or a brush made of sage leaves or spray a mixture of water, lemon juice and your favourite essential oils. Focus on clearing the negative energy out and welcoming the positive energy in. At the end, bring in some flowers, light a candle or open the windows to show the room is now filled with light and happiness. Or you can make up your own ritual – it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you believe it. Any action performed will send a powerful message o your subconscious that you are taking the sensations seriously. You might even want put a symbol beside your bed when you sleep. This may be a religious symbol, or may be a lucky charm you believe in, it may even be something that you dreamed about and feel has a protective element to it.
    4. Remember not to go to sleep on your back, ensure you are not too hot or cold at night and are getting enough air circulating in the room. Stay away from caffeine, spicy foods or strong cheeses before bed, and hopefully these experiences will go away, or at least become milder and easier to manage.
    Good luck Tracey, and Dream Well!

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  5. Unfortunately this has happened to me from a young age, the first I believe I was twelve years old maybe thirteen. Always starting with a dream, or nightmare even in different dreams with one running theme some kind of possession over my body by someone or something that can only be described as pure evil, as these dreams are so terrifying I quite often suddenly awake from them in shock, and although awake am still unable to move any part of my body or speak properly, with a feeling of absolute terror and the feeling of a presence of something terrifying, usually only able to let out as tracey before me said so accurately a “moan of fear”. I had no idea these episodes were so common among people as I have never talked to anyone about them, but after the most recent two nights ago, I’m glad I decided to look into them a little further as I now realise I’m not just crazy!!!

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    1. Hi Jenny, it’s such a relief to find you are not crazy, isn’t it? I too felt the same! I do think there needs to be more serious research done on this experience, as it is so common across cultures and nationalities, and has been around for such a long time that mthys and superstitions have sprung up to explain it. Couple that with how traumatic the experience is for those involved, and you would think there would be more serious investigation. Maybe with the help of people like you who come here, I could start some research for us all myself… In the meantime, I am glad you have found a bit of solace coming here, and if you have any more questions, please do let me know and I will do my best to answer them for you.

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  6. I feel better with the evidence against it being a dream…

    But is it?

    Here are descriptions of my two conflicting episodes:
    (they happened approx. 3 years apart, the 2nd was 3 days ago)

    1st Episode:
    I found myself CONSCIOUS on my stomach staring down the hallway (more door was open). Then came that feeling that you describe so well. I felt it above the bed, behind my back…and then I felt ‘it’ ‘sit’ on me. I tried to scream….and within seconds I could here a sound I have never heard myself make before. I was completely paralyzed. Finally…I was able to move my mouth I could move…but that feeling…wow…so powerful.

    2nd Episode:
    I was DREAMING that I was in a room the same size and darkness of the room I was sleeping in. I was facing the closed door standing when I ‘felt’ that ‘thing’ in the house I was in. I was on the top floor and I knew ‘it’ was downstairs. As it moved up the stairs and down the hall towards the door…its presence worsened…and I tried to run…then I realized I was paralyzed. Then the door flew opened and no one was there but darkness. The feeling….horror…pure horror. When ‘it’ grabbed me my eyes opened and I could hear myself making that noise I only heard once before…the noise of screaming with my throat shut.
    ———————————————————————————————–
    **How could I have had these two similar experiences with one IN REALITY and one IN A DREAM????**

    I understand that this ‘hallucination’ occurs somewhere in between the two…but I was clearly conscious in one and unconscious in the other.

    I think I am o.k w/ the idea that they were hallucinations…because then it wouldn’t be some form of representation of my unconscious…and if I have that evil thing hiding in head…then there is something seriously wrong with my state of mind.

    But isn’t hallucinating a distorted view of your unconscious anyway???

    Either way….just knowing that that horror was produced by my very own brain and body is unnerving…..but is helpful to know it is not uncommon….and we can all agree that there…

    …NEEDS TO BE MORE RESEARCH…

    so we can all move on in peace knowing exactly how/why it happened to us.

    sweet dreams 🙂

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  7. Hi Elena! Thanks so much for your message. The more I hear about this phenomenom, the more I realise we don’t really understand what is going here. We certainly do need more research, more understanding. My response to your experiences has two main points. Firstly, your experience really highlights to me that we still know so little about what constitutes “consciousness.” This is still a relatively new field of science, though of course philosophers, mystic, poets and artists have been contemplating this for generations! But the real knowledge of when are really conscious, partly conscious or totally unconscious still eludes us. I will do some more research and post it here, if you are interested please check back and let me know what you think. I believe we can all learn more by sharing what we know with each other!
    To the second point, that of being concerned there is something really bad inside your own head, I understand your fears but please allow me to attempt to allay them! 🙂 I do not think we could necessarily describe hallucinations asa distorted view of the unconscious – hallucinations are more a distorted view of “reality” or waking consciousness, which may be brought on by chemical or physical interference in the brain. As far as this coming from “inside” our minds, I think it is more a case of coming form inside our brains – that is to say, a “misfiring” of certain neurons that creates irregular activity in the brain. I see this as a physical thing, not an emotional source, though of course the emotions it creates are very real. Maybe there is something we do all share inside us that triggers these episodes – maybe it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, maybe it is linked to a a certain traumatic experience. Or maybe it is something else entirely. I think maybe I will set up a separate group to explore and discuss this. Please let me know if you have another experience, or if you learn or discover anything new, or simply if you have any new ideas or thoughts! Dream Well!

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  8. i enjoyed this… i experience this more than i care to imagine. sometimes i can go for months w/o it happening and then something will trigger it. i always feel its something deeper ‘than just a dream’ or just ‘ sleep paralysis’…somethings just can’t be explained to satisfactorily medically.

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  9. I agree and understand knowledgeseeker! Traditional Western medicine takes a purely objective view, which does nothing to shed light on the very personal and subjective experience that is sleep paralysis with hypnagogic hallucinations (I think maybe we should abbreviate this to something like SPwHH?) After experiencing this myself I have learned that we will only advance our knowledge through open and honest dialogue, the more people we can get involved with this the greater chance we have of moving the perception of this is simply a “sleep disorder” and start to build an integrated an holistic approach that encompasses the entire human, including their belief systems, culture and values.
    Understanding how this experience has been interpreted throughout history and different cultures sheds light on the depth and meaning that a SPwHH episode can have those to experience it, and knowing of the art and literature that is inspired by it also helps reveal the complexity of human imagination, mind and biology. Let’s keep our minds open and the dialogue flowing! Thanks for your comments knowledgeseeker, please feel free to add further to the conversation at any time. Dream Well!

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  10. Thank you for posting this – my episode last night was not nearly as frightful as the ones I have experienced in the past – rather than someone sitting on my chest in the earlier dreams I felt them alongside my bed behind my back – I was on my side and then felt them totally cover me and I could not move and felt them getting a tighter strong hold on me. Last night I was also on my side – although I do frequently sleep on my back due to arm problems…this time it was just shortly after I fell asleep and I had just had a dream of where I passed a man sitting in a car with a basketball in front of him and he hit me in the back with it; I was startled and saw two other men down the street and tossed it to them and then shortly after that while on my side I felt like someone was trying to enter my heart and was probing the area first – the total fear I had in the other dreams was not there because I jumped up and out of bed as I realized the force was getting stronger…I thought I heard someone and went down and checked it out but of course no one was here. I had never heard of “sleep paralysis” before and agree with some of the other writers that it seems to me to be other worldly…and accept that it could also be a form of a disorder due to stress. Thank you for all the information.

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    1. Hi Kat, and thanks for sharing. I know the most important thing when we first experience sleep paralysis with hypnagogic hallucinations is to know we are not alone and we are not going crazy! Just being able to talk or write about it helps, and I appreciate you taking the time to do so.
      We know stress may be one trigger for these episodes, but there may be many others as well, as this experience is sadly very poorly researched from a scientific or medical perspective, so all sharing helps – thank you! I am glad to hear that you were less afraid than previous times. It does seem that experience can gradually diminish the terror, or at the very least, allow us to recognise what is happening soon enough to manage it. Each person has their own method to do this, whether it is waking themselves up to end it, going into a lucid dream or whatever else works. I personally like to “banish” the entity while in this half asleep state by the force of my will (kind of like a wizard casts a spell, but interestingly, I also feel that this energy comes from my heart), a process I have found both effective and empowering. Learning lucid dreams skills may also help with this.
      Please do feel free to come back and let me know how your experiences evolve. Dream Well Kat!

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  11. I get these all the time. Actually wrote a poem about it this morning (you can find it on my blog, subliminalflicker.wordpress.com). Oddly enough I wasn’t sleeping on my back, and I’m usually not. This time I swear it was a cat crossing my body. Which only freaked me out because I know I don’t have any cats. I could feel each paw, the pressure points on my body where it was stepping, but it wasn’t there, just soft black shadows. It’s terrifying, yet strangely fascinating.

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  12. I’ve had this experience. I am a Christian and believe there is evil in this world in the form of the demonic realm. I believe that Satan wants nothing more than to cause terror and pain to God’s children…eventually leading them straight to hell if they will not believe that Jesus has paid for sins on their behalf. The night I had this experience was just before a missions trip to Africa. The demon sat on my chest for about 5 minutes until I could clearly remember that I was God’s adopted child and it had no right to attack me. All I could eek out was, “Jesus” and immediately the presence left, I was enveloped with warmth and peace and immediately fell back to sleep. If you want to talk with me about how Jesus can free you from this terror and free you from eternal death in hell please contact me at canadianrockgirl@hotmail.com.

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  13. Wendy, if you “immediately fell back to sleep” then you haven’t “shared” the experience. Jesus and religion are not a cure. If this helps you then by all means believe it but the promise of “being freed from eternal death in hell is of little use.

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  14. Interesting article. I didn’t realize how common this is. I have been experiencing this on and off since I was 19 (49 now). I have probably had this a couple hundred times. The biggest difference for me is that while I have “conscious” thought, there is rarely, if ever, an evil presence. The worst part for me is a frustration for the inability to move. This may be followed by a slight panic as I can feel myself drifting off. This feeling always triggers my attempt to fully wake up, which I always do. The attempt is usually dream like, pounding the bed, attempting to yell out. When I wake up, I am always laying on my side. If I don’t move, sit up, roll over etc, I drop back into the state almost immediately and the sequence starts all over. The continues until I roll over or sit up. I have discovered that I can actually play with it, almost research my own dream states.

    I remember the first time quite vividly. I was drifting off after reading late one night. I was laying on my right side. When I ‘fought’ myself back into a fully conscious state, I realized it was a dream so I just laid there. I soon found myself back in the same state and the pattern repeated it self. I alowed this to continue a few times. It only stopped when I rolled over. I then had an uneventful sleep for the rest of the night.
    The part I find most interesting is that when it happens, I play with it for awhile, allow myself to go in and out of this state numerous times. While it feels like a long time, when I finally stop the sequence, only a few minutes have past, no more than 10. This was verified by my partner. She has only seen this from me a couple of times as it has slowed down in recent years.

    I would be willing to act as a research subject because of my lack of fear to the condition but it unpredictable as to when it happens.

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    1. Spencer, I find it fascinating that you are able to control it. Once I’m aware that my body is shutting down with my brain still conscious I have absolutely no control. I have on several occasions during nightmares been able to make myself wake up, but I have absolutely no choice when it first begins with the paralysis. I’ve learned these days to try not to be so afraid of the frightening feeling and to let it run it’s course but I do feel somewhat resentful that I have to do this. It’s very unsettling, especially as you mentioned the panic, when drifting off. I’m still hoping this will stop happening eventually but perhaps after 16 years maybe not!

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  15. Oh, my, where to start? I believe that it is definately more than this. Sometimes I have hypnogogic experiences, and sometimes I have real visitations. I believe that spirit lives on after our bodies die. Once in a while when they come to me in manifestations of light someone not as evolved comes too in a blanket of darkness. I have learned to say to them with authority, “if you mean well, if you come for good, you may stay; otherwise go now. You are not welcome.” They always go.

    Cat’s out of the bag now, Amy! I hope this little revelation is helpful.

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  16. Thanks Rita, and sorry for the late reply. It really does help to hear of your experiences, the more I hear, the more I am fascinated with how people use authority/will/strength etc to “banish” what is bad about the SP experience, and in coming to peace with the fearful aspects, can welcome and even enjoy SP.
    I am honored you chose to let the cat out of the bag, thanks Rita. I am inspired by the bravery of you and those who contact me to share their stories, and will be writing more about the spiritual and more deeply personal elements of SP in the not too distant future….

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  17. I’ve just come across this and felt I needed to share too as it’s the most horrible experience.
    I’ve never forgotten the awful experience & agree totally with the feeling that it’s not just something scary, you are acutely aware that evil is very very real. I’m not religious but I do have a strong sense of “the big man upstairs” so yes I have my own “faith” if you like. The reason I’m commenting is I feel I might help someone else, especially if it’s never happened to them. In the middle of this experience when I knew there was nothing left, this was it, I suddenly started saying a Hail Mary in my mind, it had the effect of an electric shock!! The thing screamed & jumped off, I’ve never slept another night without my rosary beads hanging on by bedpost. Weird things happen to jump start or awaken faith, but that, that gave me an experience of being saved by the big man himself.
    My thinking is there is a resting place for evil & that’s where it is, between sleep & waking, & even if you don’t believe in God, you certainly believe in the Devil after it.

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  18. I used to experience this often when running from lucid nightmares. I would turn away from the unfolding story and refuse to let it play out, because I was too afraid to face them. Suddenly I’d find myself trapped in my own body, unable to scream out, unable to move, unable to even breathe. It was like I was completely pinned down and surrounded by evil. Once I realized the connection, I started facing my nightmares head on and never had another one again. I would suggest to anyone experiencing these waking terrors to work on lucid dreaming and find the courage within themselves to face the nightmares. Besides, waking paralysis in the face of evil is far more terrifying than anything our dreams can throw at us. I hope this helps in your study.

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