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. The 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 here: http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~acheyne/intruder.html)
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.” (For more details this site has lots of examples: http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~acheyne/night_mare.html) The theory today is that we use a cultural reference to try and make sense of whatever the scary presence is. So if we live in the Caribbean and have a culture of witches, we will think of the presence as an evil witch hag, if we have a strong religious background we may interpret the visit as a demon, a fallen angel or even the devil himself, traditonal Europeans oftne 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 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 dimishes in the light of day, but knowing how common and widespread this experience is can be very reassuring!
As well as the sites listed through-out this article, the following links may prove useful: