Updated 6 August 2014
Sleep paralysis stories typically involve unusual and often extremely frightening or disturbing 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 science can provide a logical and comforting 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 even 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’s 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 period of panic the feeling passed, and I was able to stumble to the bathroom to make sure my face wasn’t decorated with demonic symbols.
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. And the figure is even higher amongst people who have narcolepsy (around 40%).
You may well then have experienced this phenomenon yourself, but until now not known what it was you were going through. So now we have a name for it, we need to know what causes it, and what can be done about it.
And accepting the cause is where I now know that many readers encounter a problem: although sleep paralysis has a solid scientific explanation (as you’ll see in a minute), the feeling of those weird events can be so real that you may find it difficult to accept the scientific explanation.
Cultural, religious, esoteric and personal beliefs all play a key role in how you end up viewing sleep paralysis. And with that, how they you go about dealing with it in the future.
So in a moment we’ll take a look at the scientific explanation, and also consider some of the alternative viewpoints.
Polls – what happens to you?
Poll 1 (now closed)
What is your experience of sleep paralysis?
- I've had several of the above experiences (34%, 1,083 Votes)
- I thought there was a demon or other being (33%, 1,076 Votes)
- I felt crushed or strangled (17%, 562 Votes)
- I've never experienced it (14%, 445 Votes)
- I thought there was an intruder in the room (13%, 429 Votes)
- Something else (8%, 252 Votes)
- I've had an out-of-body experience (8%, 248 Votes)
Total Voters: 3,217
Poll 2 (open to votes)
Poll 3 (open to votes)
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 at the start of the night. While 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.
- Alternatively, it can happen after you have already been asleep. During the night you cycle through several different stages of sleep. During what’s called the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage you tend to dream more vividly, and the brain ‘switches off’ your muscles to prevent you from acting out your dreams, which could of course be dangerous. Sometimes you might wake up mentally in the middle of this stage, but the body may take a while to catch up and remain ‘frozen’, leading to the awake experience of sleep paralysis.
How does science explain the weird things you see, hear or feel?
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 or other ‘presence’ in the room.
- That there is some kind of sleep paralysis demon pushing down on your chest, strangling or doing other unpleasant things to you.
- Having an out-of-body experience.
The first two are usually explained by a combination of three occurrences:
- During the REM stage 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 can’t. 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’re 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 misinterpret 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 – isn’t explained by the activation of the threat system. It’s explained by the parts of the brain involved in coordinating movement and also working out where the body physically is in space. When you’re not actually moving, there is a confusion in understanding where your body is, with the result that you feel like you are floating.
Dreams and nightmares overlapping with reality
In addition to the above, there is also the confusion which can occur as your dreams or nightmares overlap with reality. If you wake up from a dream, but remain paralyzed, sometimes your dream imagery can over-map into your physical senses.
So you may have your eyes open, but still see, hear or feel some of the weird or frightening things which you were just dreaming about, even if you aren’t aware that you were just dreaming about those things.
So for example, you could be dreaming about some strange creature, then wake up paralyzed and continue to feel that the the same creature is close to you, though it’s now in your bedroom instead of the dream-scape you were just experiencing.
Then you add the physiological elements that come with finding yourself paralyzed, and you have all the ingredients for being very scared!
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’s a human intruder in the room, then the possible explanation is simple. There really is a human intruder in the room.
If you weren’t 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’re paralyzed though, so that doesn’t work.
In all seriousness, this does actually happen to some unfortunate people. But rarely, thankfully. And it’s 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’s probably safe to assume there’s 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 believe in supernatural entities, then there’s probably not a great deal of science that could convince you otherwise. It’s a personal choice to believe in such things, and I respect your choice even if I don’t personally believe in such things.
What I would like to suggest though is this thought: if you experience sleep paralysis, wouldn’t it be more comforting for you to stop believing that you’re being tormented by demons? The scientific explanation would make sleep paralysis demon encounters so much easier to shrug off and go back to sleep. And shrug off the experience is what many people do manage to successfully do.
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’s 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’m yet to find a culture which believes it’s an angel or fairy spending some quality time with you in the night.
I know from the readers comments that some people do fully believe that demons or other evil entities exist. A few people talk about them in a religious framework, others just in terms that there are some weird and bad things out there which science can’t explain.
Amongst all of the comments from people who do believe these things there is one common theme: nothing bad actually happened to them. This then raises another question: if there are evil beings, why is it that they simply bother you in the night, and don’t do anything beyond scaring you?
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 claim to have techniques 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’s best explained in biological terms, or whether there really are other realms which a part of you is capable of accessing.
Again it’s 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’s 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 sleep paralysis, 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 turn it into something positive.
And if you think that’s a ridiculous and impossible idea (especially if your personal experience has been downright terrifying!), you’ll find several detailed comments below from readers who report trying to do exactly that. They have some inspiring stories of viewing sleep paralysis as a positive thing which they enjoy because of the unique and fascinating experiences it brings them.
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’d 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.
How to stop sleep paralysis
What medical treatment is available?
Fortunately, sleep paralysis is something which most people experience just a few times and so no treatment is required. However, if it persists and you find it highly disturbing and disruptive to your sleep and daily life, then you may find speaking to a doctor about it helpful. These are the main options they typically consider:
- They may refer you to a sleep specialist to rule out the possibility of Narcolepsy.
- They may prescribe an anti-depressant medication for a short period such as Clomipramine which is known to alter your REM sleep, and therefore help with reducing the paralysis and hallucinations.
- They might consider whether there is an underlying mental illness if you’re experiencing hallucinations outside of the sleeping environment.
- They would explain the biological processes involved in sleep paralysis, as outlined above, in the hope that educating you about sleep will help you accept it as a normal occurrence.
- They might talk to you about having healthy sleep habits, which is known to help reduce many sleep problems. You can find these practical techniques covered extensively in the section here on sleep hygiene.
How to stop sleep paralysis – tips and techniques provided by readers
In the comments below, many readers have explained how they either deal with or stop sleep paralysis. Firstly, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone for the ideas.
Secondly, you should know that I am simply going to list the ideas which might help; for many of these there is no evidence that they work beyond the fact that some people say they do. Remember that what works for one person may not for you.
- Stay calm and try not to panic. Panic and fighting it often makes it worse.
- Pray – many people who have a faith say they find this helpful. Some also say that calling on their religious beliefs and ‘commanding’ what they see to leave helps them.
- Try to relax and ‘go with it’. Some readers actually enjoy sleep paralysis, and they welcome the opportunity to have out-of-body experiences or see what strange experiences they can have.
- Don’t sleep on your back. Many people say they only have it in this position.
- Don’t read in bed as this can encourage you to fall asleep on your back.
- Sleep with a night-light on, or with music or the radio so that if you do wake up you are not in silent darkness.
- Try to wiggle just one finger or a toe. Some say this is more achievable than trying to move your whole body. Then you can try to move the hand or foot and slowly wake up the whole body.
- Remind yourself that nothing bad will happen.
- Imagine your body rolling from side to side in your mind and count each roll. Eventually you might notice you re-gain control of a body part. Focus on this part and try to grow the capacity for movement from there.
- Count numbers to focus your mind on something other than the hallucinations.
- Don’t let yourself become sleep deprived or too tired as it often happens more then.
- Try to deal with stress in your life, as periods of stress and change can make it worse.
- Don’t sleep with a high pillow – some suggest that this effects the supply of blood to the brain.
- Keep your eyes shut and try to clear your mind instead of focusing on the things you can see.
- Keep well hydrated – drink water before going to bed.
- Talk about it to family or friends – they may have experienced it too.
- Write about it here. Some people find it helpful to describe their experience in the comments below.
- If you have it once, change sleeping position before trying to sleep again. Perhaps also keep a light or music on.
- Don’t take recreational drugs.
- Check if any sleeping pills or herbal remedies you’re taking are causing it – either by discussing it with your doctor, or stopping taking them for a while.
During 2013, a British team of film-makers, researchers and academics worked on an exciting project exploring sleep paralysis. They produced an interesting, if slightly scary, documentary and also have an excellent website with detailed information about sleep paralysis. You can visit the sleep paralysis project website for more information.
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.
Poll 4 (open to votes)
It’s always fascinating to hear reader’s sleep paralysis stories, and I know that many people find it helpful to have a place to describe what happened to them. Moreover, other readers find it helpful to know they’re not alone and perhaps find someone who’s had similar experiences.
So feel free to talk about your experience of sleep paralysis, and if you have any tips or techniques for dealing with it, I may add them to the growing list of practical solutions.
Please scroll down to the bottom to leave your comment though, unless you find a particular comment which you would like to discuss with the original poster. Some readers do come back to respond to new comments left on their own.