Many of us are familiar with sleep paralysis and perhaps some of you have actually had the sensation of being in a semi-sleep state, trapped in your body, unable to move. If you have, then you know what a frightening and shocking phenomenon this is. If you are unfamiliar with what this is exactly – a quick definition:
“[S]leep paralysis [is] a state of consciousness occurring while falling asleep or upon awakening, lasting for several minutes or a few seconds, and characterized by a feeling of an inability to move. While experiencing this state the individual is fully aware of the condition, surroundings, and have complete recall of the episode. Vivid and terrifying hallucinations often accompany this state of consciousness and a sense of acute danger may be felt. Once the episode of paralysis passes, the individual often sits up with a start, experiences symptoms of panic (e.g. tachycardia, hyperventilation, fear) and realizes that the perceptions of danger were false.”¹
Sleep paralysis is very often attributed to paranormal activity. A few of the most common entities who are held responsible for holding people down in their beds are the incubus, the djinn, demons, and various other dark entities. This can happen only once or it may happen repeatedly over a series of nights. It is documented that about 15% of our population has fallen victim to sleep paralysis. In the United States alone, nearly 3 million people report this nightmare each year.
According to Shelley Adler, in her book Sleep Paralysis², there are certain common traits:
- victim’s impression of wakefulness
- inability to move or speak
- realistic perception of the immediate environment
- intense fear and anxiety
- lying in a supine position
- feeling pressure on the chest
- difficulty breathing
- an awareness of a ‘presence’ that is often seen or heard
The Stuff of Legends
The history of sleep paralysis has been recorded as far back as the 2nd century when the Greek physician Galen attributed it to indigestion. Since then, it has perplexed mankind so much so that it exists as legends within nearly every culture throughout the world.
One such culture is located on the most eastern province of Canada – Newfoundland. Here the stories of the “ag rog” have become a popular explanation for what happens in sleep paralysis. “The Hag,” as she is also known, is an incubus or succubus that visits in the form of hallucinations. She then sits on top of the chest of the victim, pushing the life out of the them. Sometimes the creature is a male, the gender doesn’t necessarily matter:
“He was heavy. I tried to shift my arms, but they were pinned to my sides. And I could smell him, which was the worst of it — the bitter combination of feeling a rough jaw against the skin of my neck, and the terror of being unable to breathe. I choked. He smelt like sweat and something else — something ugly.”³
After the experience is over and the victim recovers, profuse sweating and exhaustion usually ensue. Witnesses report that some victims let out a high-pitched scream or low moans. Their eyes may be closed or open. Sometimes these attacks can be fatal, as was reported during the 1980’s in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota. A group of healthy Laotian Hmong refugees, between the ages of 25 and 50, were suddenly dying and professionals were unable to find any medical cause. Their deaths were attributed to sleep paralysis.²
Outside of the United States, sleep paralysis is known all over the world. “In Chinese culture it is called, in pinyin, “鬼壓身/鬼压身,” guǐ yā shēn (‘ghost pressing on body’), in Turkish ‘uyku felci’ karabasan (‘the dark assailant’), and in Vietnamese ma đè means ‘held down by the ghost.’ The Hungarian term boszorkany-nyomas means ‘witches pressure’, while German has alpdrucken, or ‘elf pressing.’ ” In Japanese culture sleep paralysis is known as (金縛りkanashibari (‘bound or fastened in metal’). In Korean culture, sleep paralysis is called gawi nulim (‘Hangul: 가위눌림’). I list these terms specifically to show that sleep paralysis has been a deeply embedded issue within the human race for millenia. So why is this happening?
From a paranormal perspective, spirits and other entities do visit us in our dreams. Sometimes, like a deceased relative, he or she comes to offer up a warning or perhaps to comfort in a time of need. Darker entities have an agenda of their own. Perhaps the entity has attached itself to a family member so it can execute a haunting in the home. Sometimes we involve ourselves activities that invite malevolent spirits into our lives such as using Ouija boards, performing magic rituals or any form of witchcraft. As such, these entities have been invited into your dreams and sleep paralysis may just be a “side effect” of your actions. Others claim that alien abduction is the cause.
Sometimes, though, none of these scenarios apply. So then, why do folks who may not even as much as believe in the paranormal suffer from this frightening experience?
Science has a pretty convincing explanation for why sleep paralysis occurs. When we start to fall asleep, we slowly move into REM sleep. Once there, we are locked into the dream state. These are the normal stages of sleep. Sometimes, though, stages are bypassed:
“During rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, the muscles of the body are paralyzed, presumably to prevent the dreamer from physically acting out the dream. Researchers are not sure why this normal paralysis happens during consciousness for victims of sleep paralysis, but psychophysiological studies have confirmed that attacks are particularly likely to occur if the person enters REM sleep quickly after hitting the pillow, bypassing the stages of non-REM sleep that usually happen first.”⁴
Panic attacks are commonly associated with sleep paralysis and may be a possible explanation. Over the course of my research I have found that a very large percentage of the general population suffer from symptoms that qualify them for a diagnosis of panic disorder according to DSM-III critieria, even though they may not recognize themselves as having this horrible phenomenon.
Fear is yet another possible predictor for sleep paralysis. Once the victim awakens from the sleep state and the body remains in “paralysis,” the element of fear takes over immediately. The fear reaction activates the amygdaloid and temporal lobes of the brain which then leads to all of the other hallucinatory and sense experiences. To put it simply, the brain creates the unusual phenomena of sleep paralysis triggered by the surge of fear.
One final scientific explanation is sleep apnea. I personally suffer from this disorder and use a CPAP machine every night. When the body falls into its pre-dream resting state, breathing is slowed dramatically and blood pressure drops. Those of us with sleep apnea will stop breathing at points during the night which drops our oxygen below safe levels. Mine went as low as 67%. In an oxygen-deprived state the brain can go a bit haywire and create many of the symptoms that are being associated with sleep paralysis. Although I have never personally suffered from paralysis, I can see where having sleep apnea could be a possible explanation.
The four possible explanations for sleep paralysis offered here are an attempt to rule out paranormal phenomenon by using our current understanding of the human body and mind. Depending on what angle you choose to look at the subject, any one of these possibilities can debunk sleep paralysis’ supernatural claims. There is one fact that remains a common thread through all documented experiences no matter what part of the world is studied.
“Auditory experiences ranged from tapping sounds and footsteps to jabbering voices. Visual experiences ranged from shadowy outlines to vivid demonic figures. Floating experiences ranged from rising sensations to vertiginous flights through spinning tunnels.”⁵
The experiences listed above could be taken straight from the transcripts of any paranormal investigation, out-of-body-experiences or those who are sensitive to the spirit world. No matter who the victim is or in what part of the world sleep paralysis is studied, these experiences remain strangely consistent. As stated earlier, while in the dream state it is known that we can interact with certain spirits – like our deceased relatives. The spirit world, transversely, likes to interact with us. Perhaps it is the intent of certain entities that trigger the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Darker entities love to play the role of trickster or dominate individuals and using fear is a great way for them to accomplish their devious goals.
Science has left us with a few unknowns that surpass anything it can yet explain. Scientists cannot provide clear answers why auditory, visual, and floating experiences are so consistent across the board. The study of the paranormal realm can. Until science can prove further… people who experience sleep paralysis may truly be interacting with spirits and entities – many of whom feed off of our fear of being trapped in an immobile physical body and subject to whatever the entity chooses to do to us.
Would you agree with this assessment? Do your personal experiences dictate that sleep paralysis may actually be something else?
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¹ Bell, Carl C., et. al. “Further Studies on the Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects.” Journal of the National Medical Association. Vol. 78, no. 7: 1986. pp. 649-659.
² Adler, Shelley R. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. 2011.
⁵ Cheyne, J. Allen, et. al., “Relations among hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences associated with sleep paralysis.” <em>J. Sleep Res.</em> (1999) 8: 313-317.