My eyes are open, scanning the room for the weight that's holding me down. It is night. I've been sleeping. I try to move, but nothing is working – arms, legs, my body is leaden. I open my mouth to call for help but nothing comes out. I scream and scream, in silence. Am I dead?
I've suffered on and off from sleep paralysis for most of my adult life, and if you don't know what's happening to you in the moment when it occurs, it'll be one of the most harrowing things you can experience.
I was around 18 years old when I first suffered from a bout of sleep paralysis, and remember it vividly. I still lived at home at the time and, as a keen reader, had an exposed, shadeless lightbulb dangling just over my pillow so that I could read with ease into the early hours. I don't remember the moment that I fell asleep (do we ever?), but I remember waking up – or more accurately, half-waking. Though the bulb had been left on, I recall a strange shadow enveloping the periphery of my vision, and a noise that felt at once both completely silent and as though a deafening, high-pitched ring were happening somewhere nearby. Initially I presumed it was just an extension of an incredibly lucid dream, and attempted to flow with it. But though it's near impossible to accurately determine how long I was in this strange state, the prolonged experience made me realise that something was wrong. Soon, an immense panic overtook me – I felt locked in place, weighed down by an unseen force, knowing that I was sending from my brain the message to my tongue and vocal chords to scream, but helpless as to why such a simple motion couldn’t be completed.
And then, as though I'd swam up from the depths of a black, viscous pool, I awoke, gasping for breath, heart pounding as if I'd been wrestling an invisible foe for hours. I was so terrified that, for the first time since I'd been a small child, I woke my dozing mother and asked to sleep the night on her bedroom floor.
It was a uniquely frightening experience, unlike any nightmare I had ever slept through. Curious as to what had happened to me, I did what all modern hypochondriacs do – I googled my symptoms. For once, this was a wise move – rather than filling my worried head with all manner of obscure illnesses, I quickly discovered that my experience was far from solitary. Many people before me had suffered from similar symptoms, and being able to give the harrowing spell the name “Sleep Paralysis” proved a massive relief. I wasn't crazy.
The fact I was at university during my first sleep paralysis episode speaks volumes – it was an incredibly stressful time for me. As an English student, I'd be reading late into the night, mulling over my research, waking early for lectures and (predictably) drinking rather heavily. All of these habits aren't conducive to a comfortable sleep at the best of times, but for someone prone to the symptoms of sleep paralysis, they significantly increase the chances of you falling foul to the problem.
Sleep paralysis is actually a hormonal issue. The hormones your body releases to allow your body to sleep peacefully do not fully wear off by the time you wake, allowing you to be both conscious and paralysed at once. This occurs during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, when the brain is most active and conjuring up its most vivid dreams. In fact, the body’s naturally-paralysed condition during this stage of sleep is thought to be a means of preventing sleepers from acting out the events in their dreams -- running away from that fire-breathing robot dinosaur in reality while not fully conscious, could have some potentially-dangerous repercussions. Face, meet wall.
This meeting place between the dream world and a paralysed reality often leads sufferers of sleep paralysis to experience what could be described as hallucinatory states. It’s not uncommon for those roused from a sleep paralysis episode to recall figures being present in the room -- even sitting on them. As such, The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli’s 1781 masterpiece, is often considered one of the earliest depictions of sleep paralysis:
Sleep and dreaming remains one of the more mysterious elements of the human condition, but for our ancestors, it at times seemed outright supernatural. In many cultures and religions, sleep paralysis has been linked with belief in demonic possession. Before It's News states that British folklore recalls the “Old Hag”, a witch-like figure who would leave her physical body during the night and sit invisibly on or within the sleeping victim, weighing them down. Similar explanations for sleep paralysis can be found in Finnish and Swedish lore.
Other cultures believe the paralysis is caused by a demonic, devil-like figure. The Phi Am ghost of Thai folklore is thought to be able to inflict bruises during sleep, while Turkey’s djinn attempts to strangle the paralysed victim. Even the phrase of having “the Devil on your back” is thought to have been in reference to sleep paralysis originally -- and it’s still a common descriptor for the sleep disturbance in Nigeria.
In Fiji, it’s a slightly different story: sleep paralysis is known as kana tevoro, and is actually welcomed as an opportunity to converse with recently-deceased loved ones!
Science, however, has been able to isolate more grounded causes of sleep paralysis -- many of which correlate with my own early experiences with the problem. Irregular sleep patterns or sleep deprivation is a key cause of sleep paralysis, while it’s more likely to occur in teenagers whose hormones are running riot. Narcoleptics often experience sleep paralysis, while having a family history of the issue ups your chances of suffering from it too. Around 6 per cent of the world’s population will experience it at some point during their lives.
Thankfully, there are easy-to-implement ways to relieve the likelihood of suffering from sleep paralysis. Setting regular sleeping times and lengths (adults need at least six to eight hours) helps massively, as can ensuring your sleeping environment is at a comfortable temperature and isn’t too noisy. Avoiding drinking alcoholic or caffeine-rich drinks before sleeping also helps, and sufferers should avoid smoking before settling down for the night too. Making time for regular exercise is also said to be useful. Chronic sufferers can be prescribed anti-depressants to ease the symptoms (though some of the side effects sound just as scary as the sleeping issue itself).
And, from my own experiences, it does get easier with every bout suffered. Though there’s still the lingering fear that one day I won’t be able to snap out of the paralysed state, each successive episode comes with the knowledge that it is widely experienced; it is an understood phenomenon and that, however scary it may be in the moment, it will pass. Sweet dreams.
When Gerald isn't writing for Gizmodo UK, he's probably sleeping. Or at least attempting to. When he's awake, he enjoys reading books about pirates and spaceships, watching films about pirates and spaceships, or playing video games about pirates and spaceships.
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