Sleep paralysis stories typically involve unusual and often frightening experiences. Perhaps you have one or two of these tales to tell of your own.
If not, I’ll first share one of mine to give you an understanding of what it can be like. Then we’ll have a closer look at whether sleep paralysis demons really exist, or if there is a perfectly logical explanation.
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: you’ve fallen asleep as usual after a long day. You hoped to have pleasant dreams and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed. But instead of waking up peacefully in the morning ready to groggily hit the snooze button, you awaken at an unknown time in the middle of the night.
Two things immediately spring to mind: you can’t move – at all; and you’re not alone.
You feel a weight on your chest, pressing you down and preventing you from sitting up. But it’s worse than that – you can’t move your arms or legs. You can’t move your lips to call out for help. You’re not sure who or what is pushing on your chest. It’s too dark to see. But you just know there is a presence there. Something strange. Something uninvited. Something frightening…
This happened to me last year, and was a very unsettling experience. Fortunately there was no demon, ghost or lost burglar. After a brief moment of panic the feeling passed, and I was able to stumble to the bathroom to make sure my face didn’t have any demonic symbols drawn on it.
It was a classic case of sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis stories like this one are in fact surprisingly common – A study in 2011 found that 7.6% of people will experience sleep paralysis in their lifetime. The figure is much higher amongst people who have narcolepsy (around 40%).
You may well then have experienced this phenomenon yourself, whether you knew it or not. But what do you think causes it? Is there a scientific explanation, or is there some kind of sleep paralysis demon to blame?
What causes sleep paralysis? – The scientific explanation
The causes of the physical aspect of sleep paralysis are slightly different depending on the stage of sleep you experience it:
- Some people experience sleep paralysis while they are initially falling asleep. The body naturally relaxes, and you would normally lose consciousness. But if you remain aware that you are falling asleep, your mind can remain alert while the body shuts down.
- During sleep, you cycle through several different stages. During the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stages you tend to dream more, and the brain ‘switches off’ your muscles. One reason is that this prevents you from acting out your dreams in bed. Sometimes you might wake up mentally from REM sleep, but the body may take a while to catch up and remain ‘frozen’. In that way you will be mentally waking up while still physically paralyzed.
How does science explain the strange sleep paralysis stories?
The explanation for why you feel physically paralyzed but awake is one thing, but how does science explain 3 of the main sleep paralysis stories that people report?
- That there is an intruder in the room
- That there is some kind of sleep paralysis demon pushing down on your chest, strangling or generally frightening you
- The out-of-body experience that people might experience
The first two are usually explained by a combination of three occurrences:
- During the REM stages of sleep, and the muscle paralysis that comes with it, your breathing is affected. It becomes shallower, you might feel a blockage in the airway and when you try to breathe deeply, you may feel that you cannot. This can then lead to either the feeling of being strangled, or a presence pushing down on the chest. This then feeds into your ‘threat vigilance system’:
- When you are in a vulnerable and threatened state, the body naturally reacts with its fight or flight defense mechanism. For example when you suddenly feel that someone wants to attack you and you get that surge of adrenalin that makes your heart beat much faster. So when waking up but feeling paralyzed, and in a hyper-vigilant state where everything you sense seems much more than it is, you may react to the sensation of paralysis and breathing difficulty by thinking that something bad is happening, or about to happen to you.
- In addition to the above two processes, several brain structures might interact to create a hypnagogic hallucination. For example the common sleep paralysis stories of an intruder or a demonic entity. The hallucination may not initially take on any particular form. But when the threat system comes into play, you might interpret the feeling that you are not alone as being that the additional presence is something bad – thus creating a hallucination which is demonic or malevolent in some way.
The third kind of happening, the out-of-body experience, is not explained by the activation of the threat system. It is explained by the parts of the brain involved in coordinating movement and also working out where the body physically is in space. When you are not actually moving, there is a confusion in understanding where your body is, with the result that you feel like you are floating.
Sleep paralysis causes – the not so scientific explanation…
If you don’t believe that the scientific explanation is sufficient, then what else remains? Let’s look at each of the 3 main types of sleep paralysis stories in turn:
1. The Intruder
If you wake up in the middle of the night and you have a sudden feeling that there is a human intruder in the room, then the possible explanation is simple. There really is a human intruder in the room…
If you were not paralyzed, then there would be an obvious way to find way out if this were the case. Turn on the light and have a look, or prod your partner and tell them to do something about it. But you are paralyzed though, so that doesn’t work.
In all seriousness, this does actually happen to some unfortunate people. But rarely, thankfully. And it is unlikely a common burglar would have been able to paralyze you and somehow choke you whilst helping himself to your jewelry.
So if you wake up paralyzed and struggling to breathe, and then notice a presence on the other side of the room, it is probably safe to assume there is no intruder. Unless you are incredibly unlucky and experiencing both an episode of sleep paralysis and a burglary at exactly the same time. That does seem particularly unlikely though.
2. The Demon
If you are the type to believe in supernatural entities, then there is probably not a great deal of science that could convince you otherwise. It is a personal choice to believe in such things, and I respect your choice more than to simply tell you to not be so silly.
But if you are also the type to experience sleep paralysis, wouldn’t it be more comforting for you to stop believing that you are being tormented by demons? The scientific explanation would make sleep paralysis demon encounters so much easier to shrug off and go back to sleep.
Interestingly though, around the world there are many cultural interpretations of the forces at work in this particular kind of sleep paralysis event.
For example in Fiji, the demon is often seen as a deceased relative come back for some unfinished business or to tell the person something important. In Chinese folklore it is also seen as a ghost rather than a demon or intruder.
Some countries such as Iran and Pakistan interpret it as being demons or spirits who have taken over a person’s body, often due to black magic performed by an enemy. In Turkish culture the entity is literally seen as sitting on your chest and stealing away your breath.
Most countries and cultures appear to have their own explanations for the sleep paralysis demon – some very similar, and others quite different. The common theme being though that the entity is up to no good and something to be feared! I am yet to find a culture which believes it is an angel or fairy spending some quality time with you in the night.
3. The out-of-body experience
When I was a teenager I once picked up a book in a library which claimed to be a training manual for Astral Projection. The idea being that there is a separate part of you that is able to leave the body and venture into other planes of existence. The manual mostly involved visualization practice which I played around with for a couple of days before deciding it wasn’t for me.
There seems to be some overlap between the concepts of out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, lucid dreaming and astral projection. Many people report having experienced one or more of these, and the internet and bookstores abound with writers who believe they have the next great technique to consciously leave the body and have an amazing adventure in the spirit, dream or astral realm.
There is no dispute that people do experience the sensation of an out-of-body experience during sleep paralysis. The point is whether it is best explained in biological terms, or whether there really are other realms which a part of you is capable of accessing.
Again it is a question of belief and I am not here to tell you either way what you should think. You may even feel that both explanations can co-exist.
There are many websites claiming that Sleep Paralysis has a biological cause, but can then be used as a springboard to try to attempt astral projection. An online search will turn up many, though I won’t reference any in particular.
I also recently came across what is actually quite a sensible book explaining how to do this. It’s called ‘Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night’. It provides a detailed background to SP, but also aims to help you find a way to convert sleep paralysis into a lucid dream.
The point being that you can then take control of the experience and actually turn it into something positive. It still hasn’t worked for me, but you might find it interesting if you haven’t found any other way to manage your SP. You can find it here on Amazon.
Intruder, Demon or Delusion?
A delusion is typically seen as a fixed belief in something even though it contradicts reality – in the way that reality is defined by the majority or people or scientific explanation. On the face of things then, it would appear delusional to believe in demons or astral worlds. Yet many people do.
It comes down to choice. Yet if you are one of those people with sleep paralysis stories full of terror and panic, would you not prefer to choose to believe in the biological explanation?
Sleep paralysis treatment usually starts with ruling out the possibility of Narcolepsy. You would also receive an explanation of the biological processes involved in sleep paralysis. This may not prevent the experience occurring, but it provides the possibility you can learn to respond better to incidents of sleep paralysis.
For some people sleep paralysis is a terrifying experience, and can be very hard to fall asleep again afterwards; presumably much harder if you actually believe you have been attacked by a dark force rather than acknowledging that it was a creation of your own mind.
Choosing to believe in astral worlds that you can access and fly around in doing whatever you please sounds harmless and fun. If I’m honest I would like to believe this is possible – even though I’m not convinced. But choosing to believe you are having the life sucked out of you by a sleep paralysis demon doesn’t sound like such a healthy belief to hold.
So if you are able to choose what you believe, would it not be better to choose what is most likely to get you through the night a little easier?
Feel free to leave your own sleep paralysis stories in the comments, and offer your thoughts on what best explains it.
Further Reading and the exciting new sleep paralysis project
Throughout 2013, a British team of film-makers, researchers and academics will be working on an exciting project exploring sleep paralysis. They are currently working on a film on the topic and also have an excellent new website with detailed information.
If you’ve ever searched on YouTube for sleep paralysis videos, you will have noticed that there is almost nothing worth watching. So we’ll be looking forward to seeing what this team produces. Head on over to the sleep paralysis project website for more information.
And if you were hoping for some more practical advice on dealing with sleep paralysis, then there there are two more sources of help you might find useful:
1. Since writing this article initially, many people have left very interesting comments, some with some good ideas on things they find help or make sleep paralysis worse. Have a look through (if you have the time as there is a lot to read!) and also feel free to add your own sleep paralysis stories to the discussion.
2. Even though they’re not strictly related, you might find some useful ideas in my article discussing how to stop nightmares and night terrors. I think you can definitely put some of those tips into practice and see if they help at all.