The pervasive mood of absolute, unbearable terror and horror that characterized many of my nights began to seep into my daylight hours and plague me with fears that I might be losing my mind… ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Picture this: you wake up in the dead of night, dazed, confused and utterly exhausted. The room is so dark you can’t see a thing until you notice a small light coming from underneath the door. The light begins to widen, getting larger and larger and bringing with it an eerie sensation of someone having just entered the room.
Peering through the darkness, you try to make out the looming figure approaching the bed, but it’s impossible — all you can see is a vague black mass moving towards you. The terror begins to rise in your chest, and you desperately try to move, yet find yourself heavy with a weight you can’t explain. Immobilized, unable to struggle or cry out, you can do nothing but stare as you watch this strange shadow arrive at the end of your bed. Slowly, it climbs up onto the blankets and begins to crawl towards you. Your mind screams in horror, yet your body is stone cold dead.
And then you wake up, this time properly.
This is not just an extreme case of the night terrors, or a particularly frightening bad dream. This is something completely different — in fact quite the opposite. Something so terrifying that it has mystified doctors and academics for years. This is sleep paralysis, and it’s absolutely terrifying.
No Friendly Sand-Man
We’ve all had long, lengthy, tiring days that leave you wanting nothing more than to curl up in bed and slowly drift into the wonderful world of sleep. For some it is by far their favorite time of day, and rightly so. A well-earned escape into sand land. Yet for others, it can be a dangerous game of Russian Roulette, leaving them living in fear of what could happen as soon as you silence your eyes.
Sleep Paralysis gained its name due to the relentless feeling of being unable to move or speak during the succession of sleep. The condition has been known for a long time, with reports from as far back as the Middle Ages — yarns of a ‘witch or other demonic entity sitting on their bodies and trying to entrap their souls’, frightened folk for years.
The experience itself is generally no longer than a few seconds, yet to the sufferer it feels much longer, in some cases lasting an entire night. A common occurrence is the feeling of a ‘presence’ or an ‘intruder’ in the room, usually described as threatening, menacing or evil, hence the past belief of interference by witches and demons. Along with the presence of this interloper comes a feeling of total paralysis of the body, yet complete clarity of the mind, leaving victims feeling utterly vulnerable in the wake of what’s to come.
Why does Sleep Paralysis happen?
Researchers state that in most cases Sleep Paralysis is ultimately a sign that your body and your brain are not running as smoothly as they should. In particular, when falling asleep (hypnagogic or predormital stage) or when awakening (hypnopompic or postdormital stage). During rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, the muscles of the body become paralyzed, usually thought to prevent the dreamer from acting out their dreams. During sleep paralysis, however, the brain hasn’t received the memo, leaving the sufferer wide awake yet at the same time, completely frozen.
Although there is no definite answer to why Sleep Paralysis happens, there has been a number of a possibilities including narcolepsy, sleep apnea and anxiety, with attacks more likely to happen if the person enters REM sleep quickly, dodging the stages of non-REM sleep that usually come first. Other causes include sleeping on your back, feeling stressed, or an interference in normal sleep patterns, such as shift changes, caffeine, alcohol and the big one: jet lag.
Who suffers from it?
Usually Sleep Paralysis is more likely to happen in your twenties or thirties but can happen at any point in your life. The phenomenon is actually somewhat frequent with estimates of as many as 65% of people having the unfortunate luck of experiencing it. As mentioned before, people with a history of disrupted sleep cycles, trauma and, again, anxiety or depression are more at risk. However, the details of Sleep Paralysis can vary from person to person, with some hearing voices and demonic sounds to others witnessing hallucinations and actual creatures.
Is it the same as an OBE (Out of Body Experience)?
Just like Sleep Paralysis, out-of-body experiences have been reported for thousands of years, and often come with a belief that the soul separates from the body. Highly linked to sleeping and dreaming, (again, like Sleep Paralysis) OBEs tend to be reported as a much more positive experience, with subjects suggesting a rather safe and tranquil feeling rather than the overwhelming feeling of fear so often felt by paralysis sufferers. They are seen by some as a sort of ‘launching pad’ for an out-of-body experience. It is common that most sleep paralysis victims will also experience an OBE at some point in their lives. Interestingly, due to the spiritual nature of these episodes, both have also been linked to an unworldly dimension or even a quick peak at heaven.
Although extremely unsettling, sleep paralysis actually has no real harmful effects, other than the psychological impact it could generate. In order to combat the fear that surrounds it, it is important to make people aware of what is happening to them (hence articles such as this one). As always, education can make the difference between terrified ignorance and deeper understanding. And while this knowledge may not completely alleviate the discomfort of the experience, it can be used as weapon of defence and endurance the next time an episode occurs.