You open your eye’s and it’s the dead of night. You try to roll over and find yourself completely locked in place. As you start to panic you feel something pushing down on your chest and a presence in the room. You go to scream but your lips are locked in place and no sound will come out. You can’t move, you can’t speak, and you’re terrified.
That is the very real experience of people who have suffered from sleep paralysis.
Image by Vynn-Beverly
Fortunately, there is a very real answer for what is going on while you experience these terrifying feelings. While sleeping your body goes through a cycle of sleep, from light sleep to deep and then REM sleep. REM sleep is the period where you normally dream, so to stop your body acting out the dream and possibly doing damage to you and those around you, your brain sends signals to your limbs which paralyzes them in place.
The problems occur when your sleep cycles get mixed up and you wake up during the REM cycle but your brain doesn’t catch up to tell you that it’s ok to start moving your body again. Not a nice feeling!
But as much as it’s not a nice feeling it is incredibly interesting, and as part of the mission here at The Dozy Owl to make sure everyone gets a good nights sleep I wanted to really look into sleep paralysis and see what I could find. I’m not a medical professional so consult your doctor before taking any advice given here. Check out the Table of contents below to jump to a specific section or just read it all the way through.
How Sleep Paralysis Feels – The Symptoms
Let’s start at the beginning and describe some of the common symptoms people report during sleep paralysis.
1. Awake yet paralysed
This is the most notable symptom being of course where sleep paralysis gets its name. You are awake in the sense that you can see your normal bedroom around you, the bed, maybe your partner, the tv, but your whole body is fixed in place and you can’t bring yourself to move it.
You might try and cry out for help only to realise your jaw is stuck shut and no sound will come out. You might be able to move your eyes but there have been cases where even your eyes are glued shut. Then it becomes difficult to tell if you’re experiencing sleep paralysis or having a nightmare but generally you know if you are actually awake.
2. Weight on Your Chest
Another common symptom is a crushing feeling in your chest. Often thought of as a feeling of a demon sitting on your chest or that someone is standing over you pushing into your bed. It’s not known why this happens but I suspect it’s the muscles in your chest tightening through the paralysis and the fear that you begin to experience.
This often leads to a difficulty of breathing. While you are still able to breathe it is more likely that it comes out as short gasps rather than full deep breaths.
These come in a lot of different forms. Most commonly you feel an overwhelming dread or terror. Often this feeling is so intense that the people who feel it fail to describe what it was really like. This is possibly the worst of all the symptoms, once you get your ability to move back you can move on but that sheer terror can stay with you for a long time.
Other Hallucinations comes in the forms of strangers in the room with you, big dark figures or sometimes people standing in the room with you. But they can also come in the form of sounds such as animals growling (think the BBC series Sherlocks Hound of The Baskerville Episode where he hears the hound barking at night)
4. Out of Body Experience
In some cases people even have out of body experiences during a sleep paralysis like state. So to add to the terrifying feeling that will be over you any way you could find yourself floating over your body in a state of panic.
Some cases will be more severe than others but generally, it’s fair to say it’s probably not going to be a good time. So let’s talk about what you can do if you experience it.
Sleep Paralysis Across the World
People the world over experience sleep paralysis and through history it is the same sensations usually attributed to different demons.
In Japan sleep paralysis is referred to as a kanashinari attack, which literally means “bound in metal”. Meanwhile, in the west Indies, they have the Kokma which is the spirit of a dead baby that attacks in the night pressing on the chest and reaching for the throat. In the Far North one speaks of agumangia (Inupik) or ukomiarik (Yupik) in which “a soul” tries to take possession of the paralyzed victim. It’s a bit of a tough read but there’s more info on demons of sleep here.
Then in the united states, particularly the south, this was thought to be the act of witches sending demons after you. Other countries speak of “the hag” who appears over you while she casts her spell on you. All in all, it’s unsurprising that such real feelings caused so much fear across the world.
Sleep paralysis was also visually incorporated various artwork over the years. The most iconic are The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Fussli which was painted in 1781 and shows a woman lying with a demon sitting on her chest while the night-mare stands in the background. Scary stuff in the 18th century!
What To do During Sleep Paralysis
There’s no one cure fix all for sleep paralysis, everyone experiences it differently, but there are several tools you can add to your arsenal to help you out if you feel it happening. Check out the NHS website for more info.
Step 1. Relax!
The most important and probably the most difficult, relaxing is crucial to stop the feelings of terror getting worse. It is of course far easier said than done but it’s a case of trying to remember everything you’ve read here of what sleep paralysis is. Rationalising it makes it will make it easier to deal with.
Step 2. Movement
Concentrate really hard on wiggling your big toe. If you manage to get your toe moving it’s the first step to getting the rest of you moving too. The same works with trying to move your finger or clenching your fist. Even try and scrunch your nose and your eyebrows, like you’ve just smelt a bad smell.
Step 3. If you have a partner try and talk to them
This doesn’t work if you sleep alone but if you have a partner explain to them what sleep paralysis is and what happens when you experience it. That way if you’re lucky enough to be able to move your mouth you can say something to them and they can help comfort you or even shake you out of it.
Step 4. Simply Observe
Similar to relaxing if you simply observe all your symptoms they become less stressful and scary. “Hmm my chest feels like it’s being pressed on better not push back and just let it happen” again not easy but if it’s something your experience often you can learn to do this.
Step 5. Don’t fight it
Fighting only makes it worse so you’ve got to just let it happen. It’ll only last a few minutes max so just let it run its course and you’ll come out the other side totally fine.
Finally when it does pass it’s best to turn the light on and get out of bed for a minute, just to shake off the experience and so you can go back to bed and sleep normally after.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis – Supernatural or Science?
I’m not a hugely supernatural kind of guy so I love the science and explanation of things, so I looked into sleep paralysis and found some researchers who isolated two chemicals that are key. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and Glycine. If you have no idea what they are your not alone!
I haven’t a clue on the specifics of what those are responsible for, I just know that researchers measured the response of facial muscles in rats during rem sleep, and the muscles stopped operating during rem sleep normally, then they blocked these two chemicals and the muscles remained unparalysed.
So as with many issues it’s a brain chemical that causes the paralysis to occur. But there is little explanation of why your body can fall out of this rhythm causing you to wake up in your rem cycle. And then the hallucinations? How can you dream in a waking state and experience all these feelings and sights?
This leads to a strong belief in demons, witches, ghosts or angry spirits coming to get you. And it’s not surprising given the very real feelings you get during these episodes, for those who’ve experienced it I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s hard to dispute the realness of your feelings while it’s happening. But it’s important to remember the rational explanation if it is becoming a problem for you, it can help put you at ease and just let it pass.
What do you think is it real or supernatural? Let me know in the comments at the bottom.
Who’s Most Likely To Suffer
A lot of people cite different numbers but anywhere from 5%-60% of people are likely to experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives. The likely hood then get’s higher for people who have mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Sleep paralysis can also be a side effect of narcolepsy, so if you experience sleep paralysis often then you should consider going to speak to a doctor as you may be narcoleptic.
What Can You do To Prevent Sleep Paralysis
If you ended up reading this and haven’t ever experienced sleep paralysis I’m sure you have a slight fear that now you might. Well aside from knowing how to handle it if it does happen here are some prevention tips.
1. Get regular sleep
Since sleep paralysis occurs because your sleep cycle falls out of sync you want to make sure you are getting enough sleep and that it’s happening at regular intervals. If you follow a different sleep cycle which involves periods of napping then that’s fine as long as it works for you.
2. Sleep Outdoors
Sleeping outdoors is known to do wonders for your sleep, including resetting your sleep cycles and rhythms. So if you do find your sleeping at funny intervals trying going camping and sleep under the stars without any artificial lights to disrupt you. It could do wonders for you.
Avoid Excess Alcohol and smoking
As with most things to do with sleep smoking and alcohol are just no good. They disrupt your sleep and can cause you to fall into funny sleep patterns.
Have you experienced sleep paralysis and want to share your experience? Leave a comment below!