Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find yourself alone in a dark, unfamiliar place. You can hear the creaks in the floor and the wind gushing, slamming against the window. You’re lying in your own bed, bewilderingly, inside an eerie, haunted house.
In the corner of your eyes, something sinister is in the shadows. Or someone. He’s standing before you — perhaps hovering on the foot of your bed; perhaps sitting on your chest. You become frantic. You try to scream for help only to find you can’t move a muscle. It’s becoming harder to breathe.
And then you wake up.
That terrifying nightmare knocked the breath out of you. Perhaps you find yourself covered in sweat, but relieved for surviving the nightmare that just came to life.
What you have experienced is a phenomenon called Sleep Paralysis.
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Demon In The Works
The Night Hag Syndrome
Sleep Paralysis is also called the Night Hag Syndrome, relating to an old hag — a suspected witch sitting on people’s chest, rendering its victims immobile.
Not all experience is the same during sleep paralysis. But experiences that people who experienced sleep paralysis fall into at least three categories: Intruder, Incubus, and Unusual Body Experience.
The Intruder type is when someone or something appears in the dream. Either just standing in the corner of the room, a spine-chilling lady running or screaming at you, or even a familiar face that somehow still evokes an intense fear.
The Incubus type relates to the same story as the Night Hag where a creature is sitting on your chest and choking you to death.
The Unusual Bodily Experience is the most uncommon sleep paralysis category which is characterized by an out of body experience. A feeling of floating in the air, and even seeing yourself from an outside view.
Folklores and Supernatural Beliefs on Sleep Paralysis
Like all supernatural beliefs and experiences, sleep paralysis is interpreted differently across cultures.
For the Canadian Eskimos, they believe sleep paralysis is spells cast by the shamans.
In Brazilian Folklore, the creature appearing in the dream has a name called “Pisadeira” and they describe her as a thin, bony woman with claws, pointed noise, and messy long hair.
In Japan, they call it Kanashibar.
For the Chinese, it’s a form of soul oppression.
While in the modern interpretation, some say they experienced an alien abduction.
The Science Behind Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis occurs to a lesser than 10% of the overall general population.
There are two types of sleep paralysis: the hypnagogic and hypnopompic. Basically, people experience sleep paralysis either when they fall asleep, or when they are about to wake up, respectively.
Some experience it once or twice in their lifetime, while others experience sleep paralysis several times in a month.
Scientists explains that sleep paralysis is a coping mechanism that happens in the brain when sleep cycle is interrupted.
Understanding Sleep Cycle
From the moment we close our eyes to the moment we fall into a deep slumber, we go through 5 to 6 sleep cycles that last for 90 minutes each.
Each sleep cycle is composed of five stages:
Stages 1-2 is where muscle activity is slow and we are easily woken up. Our body temperature drops and our heart rate slows down.
Stages 3-4 is where fast brain waves intermix with slow brain waves, eventually only producing slow brain waves to prepare us for the last stage.
Waking Up During REM Phase
The last stage of the cycle, REM (rapid eye movement) phase, is where dreams occur. Brain waves during the REM phase are similar to when we are awake.
Alongside this, some chemicals in the brain cause our muscles to relax to the point of paralysis. This happens to prevent us from hurting ourselves physically or acting out our dreams.
Ideally, we wake up during the lightest sleep state (stage 1 and 2). Sleep specialist advice setting our alarms, or training our body clock to wake up during these stages in order to feel fully refreshed.
Now this is where sleep paralysis occurs.
To put it simply, our brain wakes before our body.
When we wake up during REM phase while our body is not yet prepared for it, we need to go through a transition from a sleep state to the awake state.
Thus, it explains why we can’t move our muscles or why our heart beats slower.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis
People who experience panic disorders, anxiety, and depression are likely to experience sleep paralysis.
A change in sleep schedule is also an apparent cause. This includes people who work during the night.
People who are intuitive thinkers are more likely to experience sleep paralysis than analytical thinkers.
A Gateway To Lucid Dreaming
Some say that sleep paralysis is a gateway for someone to experience lucid dreaming.
As opposed to sleep paralysis, a person experiences lucid dreaming when they consciousness during REM sleep.
Lucid dreaming is a state when a person is able to control some events in their dreams or when a person becomes fully aware that they are dreaming.
People usually wish to experience lucid dreaming to be able to do things that they are not able to in their waking state. These might be impossible things as flying or swimming in the depths of the ocean. It also could be confronting a friend or a loved one about an issue that they are afraid to discuss.
In many cases, people who are lucid dreaming are able to play out their fantasies, whether fantasies that they have consciously or unconsciously.
Dream psychology, lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, and other dream theories
What to Do When You Experience Sleep Paralysis
People who experience sleep paralysis know their surroundings but unable to move their bodies except for their eyes or fingers.
And because there is a blurred line between sleep and wakefulness, high chances of what people see is a mix of reality and some aspects in the dream.
With its association to the Night Hag, or other terrifying creatures appearing during sleep paralysis, it is normal to experience hallucinations.
It goes without saying that the experience of sleep paralysis takes a toll on the experiencer, and might even cause anxiety to go back to sleep.
But it is important to know that sleep paralysis is not life-threatening or any way harmful. It normally ends after a few minutes. And no, people don’t die from sleep paralysis.
The best thing to do is to keep calm. While keeping calm might not be the best advice when you’re in a state of panic, waiting it out is the only thing you can do.
Wiggling your fingers and toes might also help. Maintaining a positive mindset, and if you could, imagining a relaxing state, helps to get out of the paralysis.