Sleep paralysis is the sensation of waking from sleep but being unable to move. This may be truly terrifying for many who experience it. Sleep paralysis is not particularly well understood by modern science. It may occur as a sense of being “paralysed” upon waking, but the experience may be more complex, and involve feeling, hearing, seeing or “sensing” strange things that seem neither from the normal waking world of waking, and yet much more real than a dream.
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 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 a slight movement of especially deep breath, 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 know this was not a dream.
This experience is known as “Hallucinatory (or Hypnagogic/Hypnopompic) Sleep Paralysis,” (or HSP) and is considered a “sleep disorder.” These experiences are different to the “dream within a dream” sequences. “Hypnagogic” refers to to the time when you are just about the fall asleep, and hypnopompic to the time when you have just woken up – both are the states right on the edge of sleep and waking consciousness.Technically HSP, 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 an “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.
Not all sleep paralysis is accompanied by hallucinations. It is entirely possible to have sleep paralysis without the malevolent presence or any hallucinations whatsoever. This may be a terrifying experience as you wake and can’t move, but others have told me they are able to use this experience to leverage into lucid dreaming. There is some variance in the hallucinations too. Some people experience a whooshing of buzzing noise, some experience pressure without an evil presence – it is surprisingly common to feel a cat walking across you, though there are no cats in the house. The presence itself may be sitting on your chest, standing over you or lurking menacingly in the corner.
Speaking as one who has experienced Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis, I can attest to the extreme malevolence of the presence I sensed 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 is profoundly disturbing. Manifest evil is not something I am given to commonly contemplating, nor have I grown up with religious fear of hell. So why this image and theme would appear to me is both confusing and unsettling.
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, these creatures 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, while 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 an 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? But then why sometimes does it not? 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 understanding 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!
More information can be found here: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/parasomnias/sleep-paralysis