Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and found yourself unable to move as a terrifying creature sits on top of you? Completely aware of your surroundings but not being able to move? If the answer is yes, then you have experienced sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that happens in between wakefulness and sleep: a state wherein your brain is already active but your body is still asleep. It is part of the sleep disorder category of parasomnia, describing abnormal behaviors during sleep.
The scariest part of it all is that no one really knows the underlying cause of this disorder yet. However, it could be linked to a few things such as insomnia, anxiety, panic disorder, or even a family history of sleep paralysis.
Researchers have found out that up to 40% of the population have experienced this condition, which makes it quite common. In some cases, these episodes occur alongside narcolepsy (in around 20-50% of narcoleptics), a chronic sleeping disorder that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep out of nowhere during the day.
Sleep paralysis occurs during REM sleep, the point during different phases of sleep where your brain is very active and ‘shows’ you the dreams you later on remember. To protect ourselves from harm in this state, our body paralyzes us so we don’t actually jump from rooftop to rooftop as we do effortlessly in the land of the Sandman.
Now, even though sleep paralysis encompasses all of the hallucinations originating from all different kinds of people, why do so many of them describe the same things? Demon-like beings.
Well, a lot of this has to do with culture. In Italy, this demonic presence comes in the form of a witch called ‘Pandafeche’ or a gigantic cat. In South Africa, it’s believed to be the result of black magic, called “segatelelo,” and victims see dwarf-like figures called ‘tokoloshe’. In Turkey, they call these apparitions “karabasan,” or spirit-like creatures.
These various cultural ties have a big influence on the way people experience sleep paralysis, the best example of this being the Danes and Egyptians. While Danish people simply explain this phenomenon as stress-related, more than half of the Egyptians who have experienced it believe it’s deadly and also happen to have longer and more frequent episodes than the others.
So obviously, if you experience sleep paralysis for the first time and grew up in a culture that explains to you that this is the product of black magic or that it could result in death, you’re inherently more terrified and more likely to hallucinate during an episode, which leads to more anxiety, thus possibly more frequent episodes, perhaps even resulting in a chronic sleeping disorder. Altogether: a vicious cycle.
But don’t worry. Even though the origin of sleep paralysis is still unclear, chances are it has nothing to do with the supernatural, and there are a couple of things you can do to prevent these scary episodes.
- Try to have a regular sleeping pattern, aiming for 6 – 8 hours of sleep per night, this includes going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day.
- Exercise on a regular basis, but not close to bedtime. You shouldn’t do it within the 4 hours before going to sleep.
- Don’t sleep on your back, as this increases the risk of suffering an episode. Sleep on your side instead.
- If you’re on medication, make sure to keep an eye on it and know the side effects and interactions of it.
- Try not to consume alcohol, nicotine, or big meals before going to sleep.
Another few things that could possibly help in some cases are therapy or trauma counseling, but you should consider consulting a doctor and getting a check-up if you think you’re in need of professional help. Before that, you could also try out yoga or some breathing exercises that can help to focus your attention elsewhere.
While researchers try to find out more clinical information about sleep paralysis, you could always try out some different cultural tips. Italians sleep with a broom kept by the door, a pile of sand on the bed, with their face down, while Chinese people for example advise considering a spiritualist.
Paranormal or not, sleep paralysis episodes can be frightening, but there is no need to worry; you won’t be killed in your sleep, nor does it mean you suffer from a deadly disease. So the next time a ghost tries to boo you out of your sleep, kindly tell it to mind its own business.
NHS website. (2019, December 5). Sleep paralysis. Nhs.Uk. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleep-paralysis/
Jalal, B. (2020, July 15). Sleep Paralysis and the Monsters Inside Your Mind. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sleep-paralysis-and-the-monsters-inside-your-mind/