Saturday, June 5, 2021

Sleep Paralysis: Science vs Supernatural

You wake up, but something's wrong. You're snug in your bed, surrounded by the silence and darkness of the night, unable to tell whether it's very early or very late. You're wondering why you woke up when you realise that you can't move. Try as hard as you can, you can't even twitch a finger. Then, out of the corner of your eye, a shadowy figure starts to stalk across the room towards you, and fear starts to kick in.
While this sounds like the start of a horror movie, many people experience this in real life on a nightly basis. Reading this, you yourself might be personally acquainted with this phenomenon.
But what's happening here?

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781, public domain

This is Sleep Paralysis 
This sleep disorder is so common that it's recognised by most medical bodies. It's featured in movies and books. It's been scaring people for centuries but these days, thanks to the internet and social media, more and more people share their experiences with it and are helping each other to cope. It's an unpleasant thing to suffer from, especially for those unfortunate folks who experience it on a near-nightly basis.
A Sleep Paralysis attack usually starts with its namesake, paralysis. A victim will wake up but find themselves unable to move. This is scary enough on its own, but it often comes with the feeling of being touched in some way, plus various visual and audio hallucinations. People have seen shadow figures, aliens, monsters, ghosts and a hag-like figure, to name a few. Audio hallucinations include static and other electrical noises, hissing, indistinct whispering, growling, screaming and sometimes clear voices. Pressure is often felt on the body, commonly on the chest, and is associated with something sitting on the victim. These experiences, combined with the inability to produce sound, to call for help, add up to a truly nightmarish situation. Thankfully, scientists and medical experts have done quite a bit of research into the subject, giving us an explanation for what's happening.

The Scientific Explanation 
Sleep Paralysis is classed as a type of Parasomnia. Your body is completely relaxed in sleep, so you don't move around too much or act out your dreams while in the REM stage of your sleep cycle. Think of it as a built-in failsafe; your body slips into a harmless form of temporary paralysis to protect you. But when the brain and body slip out of sync, Sleep Paralysis can occur. The brain wakes up early, becoming conscious while the body is still relaxed. Unfortunately, this often happens while the brain is still transitioning to or from REM sleep, resulting in audio and visual hallucinations. Sleep paralysis can occur as you're waking up, but also as you're falling asleep.
Sleep Paralysis is frightening, but harmless, and can last anywhere from seconds to a minute or so. An exact cause has yet to be discovered. Still, studies have shown many possible causes for this, including but not limited to sleeping on your back, poor sleeping patterns, food or drink consumed before bed, insomnia, anxiety and PTSD.

Sleep Paralysis and the Paranormal
Sleep Paralysis has been recorded for thousands of years, but we didn't always have science to explain what was happening. This has lead to it being blamed on things that go bump in the night and explains why some people refer to it as Old Hag. In the past it was believed that the pressure some sufferers feel on their chest was caused by a witch as she sat there, attempting to suffocate her victim or harm them through magic. This belief mostly appears in Europe and America, and some still believe it today. But if you think the spooky side of Sleep Paralysis beliefs and folklore is limited to witches, then you're wrong. Historically, in some countries, it was also seen as a sign of a vampire attack. Ghosts, spirits, demons, and Shadow People have often been seen as possible causes in many cultures. People believe them to be the cause and blame the whole thing on possession or attempted possession. In alleged encounters with Aliens, Sleep Paralysis is very common, with the victims believing Sleep Paralysis is the precursor to a visit or even part of an abduction.


Thankfully science has solved this spooky medical mystery for us, revealing anything experienced just to be a waking dream, but it's still a fascinating subject. My own experiences stemmed from anxiety, combined with an appalling sleep schedule and a nasty habit of sleeping on my back. As a teen I found it terrifying, as I had no idea what was happening, but as an adult I understand what's going on and what caused it. When having an attack, I'm prone to auditory hallucinations. I tend to close my eyes as tightly as possible when I realise what's happening and try to move my fingers, as I find that can snap me out of it. And while I'm working on that, I have to put up with whispering voices, the sound of movement in my room and a feeling of static. I've felt what felt like someone leaning on me, but that's rare. Rarer still, for me, are visual hallucinations. I've only had that happen to me once, and it happened at the worse possible time because I wasn't even in my own home; I was sharing a hotel room with a friend at a convention. Everything was fine at first, the room lit by the streetlights outside and myself just lying there trying to move my fingers. But, for whatever reason, this time around I didn't bother keeping my eyes closed and got to see a shadow figure come crawling out of the bathroom. It dragged itself across the room, between our beds and paused for one all-to-long moment before crawling under my hotel bed. Then I managed to move my pinky finger and I was up in a flash, and everything was normal again. The only reason I didn't check under my bed was that it was one of those solid block beds, and it didn't have anything to check. Yup, my first and (thankfully) only visual experience left me shaken, and I've got a lot of respect for those who suffer from visuals regularly.

I haven't included any treatment or coping advice because I am not a medical professional or an expert. This post is simply meant to be informative. I can only encourage you to do your own research into that or to contact a doctor. While there may be no magic cure for Sleep Paralysis, with help it can be got under control. 
The NHS website dedicated to the subject suggests seeing your doctor if you've become scared to sleep because of your Sleep Paralysis attacks, are experiencing anxiety because of it, or suffering from tiredness due to lack of sleep.

1 comment:

  1. This happens to me too! Thankfully, not very frequently. Perhaps once a year at most, but it is terrifying! I usually "see" a demonic entity during and "hear" it whispering to me. I try to scream for help the whole time and I cannot. I eventually do wake up, screaming outloud. It seems so real! I was wondering why this always seems to happen in a scary way? Like, why can't I be stuck in a pleasant manner instead? I lean towards a supernatural explanation of this for that reason - bc if this was scientific, then it should be at least equally scary and pleasant. But it seems to be always scary. Good luck to you with this!

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