Sleep paralysis stories typically involve unusual and often extremely frightening experiences. Perhaps you have one or two of these disturbing tales of your own to tell.
If not, I’ll first share one of mine to give you an understanding of what it can be like.
Then we’ll take a closer look at whether sleep paralysis demons really exist. Or if science can provide a logical, and hopefully comforting explanation.
A typical sleep paralysis experience
Imagine the following scenario: you’ve fallen asleep as usual after a long day. You hope you’ll 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.
A weight on the chest
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 frightening.
This happened to me last year and was a very unsettling experience. Fortunately, there was no demon, ghost or burglar in my bedroom.
After a minute’s panic, the feeling passed. And I was then able to stumble to the bathroom to make sure my face wasn’t decorated with demonic symbols.
It seems I’d had a classic case of sleep paralysis.
A common experience
Sleep paralysis stories like this one are surprisingly common. A review of 35 sleep paralysis studies in 2011 analyzed how many people had it at least once:
- 7.6% of the general population
- 28.3% of students
- 31.9% of psychiatric patients
You may have experienced it yourself, but until now not known what it was you were going through.
Polls – what’s your experience of sleep paralysis?
I ran several polls for a year to find out more about readers’ experience of sleep paralysis.
It’s possible that many people who search online about it will have had the more intense episodes, perhaps skewing the results.
But they still provide a fascinating insight into what people go through, and how they cope.
In poll 1, you can see that many have had the experience of thinking there was a demon or other being in the room.
Poll 2 shows that many readers find sleep paralysis terrifying. Again, those who search online for it are likely to have found it particularly disturbing.
Poll 3 shows that most readers first experienced sleep paralysis during childhood or adolescence.
Fortunately, poll 4 shows that most readers don’t experience sleep paralysis on a regular basis.
Poll 5 shows some of the things that have helped people stop sleep paralysis. You’ll find more coping mechanism later in the article.
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 in which you experience it:
When falling asleep
Some people experience sleep paralysis during sleep onset – sometimes known as hypnagogic sleep paralysis.
While falling asleep, your body naturally relaxes and you become less aware as you drift off to sleep.
However, if you do remain aware, you might realize you can’t move or speak if your brain stops your muscles from moving to help keep you safe while you dream.
When waking up
Alternatively, it can happen after you’ve already been asleep, known as hypnopompic sleep paralysis.
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.
During that stage, your brain ‘switches off’ your muscles to prevent you from acting out your dreams and potentially hurting yourself.
If you become aware again before the REM sleep cycle finishes, you might become conscious of the fact that you’re still paralyzed.
So you could look at sleep paralysis as your body and brain being temporarily out of sync.
Why do you see, hear or feel strange things?
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?
- An intruder or other presence in the room.
- A demon or other evil presence 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 Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, and the muscle paralysis that comes with it, your breathing can be shallower. And when you try to breathe deeply, you may feel that you can’t.
Your brain might then misinterpret this as a feeling of being strangled, or a presence pushing down on your chest.
Fight or flight
When you feel threatened, your body naturally reacts with its fight or flight defense mechanism.
So if you wake up, are unable to move and it’s dark, you may react to the sensation of paralysis and breathing difficulty by thinking that something bad is happening.
In addition to the above two processes, several brain structures might interact to create a hypnagogic hallucination.
During the experience of an intruder or demonic entity, the hallucination might not initially take on any particular form.
But when the threat system comes into play, you might interpret what you see or feel as being dangerous. And that then forms a hallucination which is demonic or malevolent in some way.
Out of body
The out-of-body experience isn’t explained by the activation of the threat system. Instead, it’s explained by the parts of the brain involved in coordinating movement and understanding where your body physically is.
Researchers generally agree that an out-of-body experience is another form of hallucination caused by a neurological mechanism.
Dreams and nightmares overlapping with reality
In addition to the above, there’s also the confusion which can occur as your dreams or nightmares overlap with reality.
If you wake up from a dream, but remain paralyzed, your dream imagery might appear to ‘map’ onto the real world.
So you may have your eyes open but still see your dream content – even if you can’t remember that you were just dreaming.
Then add the physiological elements that come with finding yourself paralyzed, and you have all the ingredients for being scared.
But why does it happen?
So now we know what happens, and what causes the feeling of paralysis and the hallucinations. But why does it happen in the first place, and only to some people?
Scientists still aren’t completely sure. But it’s thought that the more disrupted sleep a person has, the more likely it is to happen.
And researchers in 2017, who analyzed 42 previous studies, found several risk factors and associated conditions:
- Stress and anxiety
- Trauma / post-traumatic stress disorder
- Sleep problems (sleep deprivation, poor sleep patterns)
- Substance use (some medication too)
- Sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and nightmares
- Physical illness
- Paranormal and mystical beliefs
- A family history of sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis causes – the not so scientific explanation
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 someone else in the room.
If you weren’t paralyzed, there would be an obvious way to find way out if this were the case: turn on the light and have a look. But you’re paralyzed though, so that doesn’t work.
Thankfully, it’s unlikely that you’ll wake up to find a real intruder in your bedroom. And it’s even less likely that they will have a way to paralyze you.
So if you wake up paralyzed and struggling to breathe, and then notice a presence in the room, it’s probably safe to assume there’s no intruder.
2. The demon
If you firmly believe in supernatural entities, there may not be a great deal of science that could convince you otherwise. It’s a personal choice to believe in such things.
However, if you experience sleep paralysis, wouldn’t it be more comforting not to believe that you’re being tormented by demons?
The scientific explanation would make the scarier experiences easier to shake off. And not dwelling too much on the experience is what many people do manage to successfully do.
Around the world
In Fiji, the demon is sometimes seen as a deceased relative coming back to discuss an important or unfinished matter.
In Chinese folklore, it’s also seen as a ghost rather than a demon or intruder.
Some people in Iran and Pakistan interpret it as demons or spirits taking over your body. This could be due to black magic performed by an enemy.
The common theme is that the entity is usually something to be feared. I’m yet to find a culture which believes it’s a kind or beautiful creature.
I know from readers’ comments that some people do believe that demons or evil spirits exist. Some talk about them within a religious framework; others feel that there’s a lot which science can’t explain yet.
Despite these beliefs, there’s another clear theme. Nothing bad actually happened to the person beyond being frightened and losing sleep.
3. The out-of-body experience
When I was a teenager, I was given a book which claimed to be a training manual for astral projection.
The idea was that there’s a separate part of you that’s able to leave the body and venture into other planes of existence.
The manual mostly involved visualization practice, which I spent a couple of days failing to do, before deciding it wasn’t for me.
There seems to be an overlap between the concepts of out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, lucid dreaming, and astral projection.
The internet and bookstores abound with writers who claim to have techniques to leave the body and have amazing adventures in the astral realm.
There’s no dispute that people do experience the sensation of an out-of-body experience during sleep paralysis. But is it best explained in biological terms, or are there really other realms waiting to be explored?
Again it’s a question of belief and I’m not here to tell you either way what you should think. You may even feel that both explanations can coexist.
Converting sleep paralysis into lucid dreaming
Some websites and authors suggest that sleep paralysis has a biological cause, but can then be used as a springboard for lucid dreaming.
An interesting book explaining how to do this is ‘Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night’.
It provides a background to sleep paralysis, but also aims to help you find a way to convert sleep paralysis into a lucid dream.
Make sleep paralysis a positive experience
The core idea is that you can take control of the experience and turn it into something positive.
That might sound impossible, especially if your experience has been very frightening. But you’ll find several detailed comments below from readers who also say they’ve done it.
They have some inspiring stories of viewing sleep paralysis as a positive thing, which they enjoy because of the 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 it’s possible – even though I’m not convinced.
On the other hand, choosing to believe you’re having the life sucked out of you by a demonic presence doesn’t sound so good to me.
How to stop sleep paralysis
When to see a doctor
Fortunately, most people don’t experience sleep paralysis very often, and so no treatment is required.
However, if the following apply to you, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor:
- It happens regularly.
- You’re anxious about going to sleep.
- You don’t get enough sleep.
- You feel very sleepy during the day, sometimes fall asleep suddenly or lose control of your muscles.
What medical treatment is available?
If you see a doctor, they might take the following action:
- Refer you to a sleep specialist to rule out the possibility of narcolepsy.
- Prescribe an anti-depressant medication for a short period.
- Check for an underlying mental illness.
- Explain the biological processes involved in sleep paralysis to help reassure you.
- Talk to you about developing good sleep habits. This is thought to help reduce the frequency of sleep paralysis.
Readers’ techniques for coping with sleep paralysis
In the comments below, many readers have explained how they cope with sleep paralysis.
Please bear in mind that these are personal opinions and experiences only.
- Don’t let yourself become sleep deprived.
- Keep a regular routine of going to sleep and waking up.
- Reduce stress and anxiety in your life.
- Stay calm.
- Focus on wiggling just one finger or a toe.
- Tell yourself that you’re in control. You can order the experience to stop.
- If you feel a weight on your chest, imagine there’s something friendly causing it.
- Film yourself sleeping so you can see there was nothing in the room.
- Wearing a sleep tracker and see if it records you as being awake or asleep at the time. It can also check your heart rate and breathing during the night.
- Don’t think about what it could be. Your imagination will probably make up something scary in the darkness.
- Relax and go with it.
- Don’t sleep on your back.
- Organize your bedroom in a way which makes you feel safe and secure.
- Don’t hang dressing gowns, coats or hats in places which look like figures in the dark.
- Sleep with a night light, music or radio on.
- Remind yourself that nothing bad will happen.
- Imagine your body rolling from side to side in your mind and count each roll. Focus on this and try to grow the capacity for movement from there.
- Count numbers to focus your mind on something else.
- Don’t sleep with a high pillow.
- Keep your eyes shut and try to clear your mind.
- Squeeze your eyes tightly shut if you can control the muscles.
- Keep well hydrated – drink water before going to bed.
- Talk about it to family or friends – they may have experienced it too.
- If you have it once, get out of bed for a while to reset the brain.
- Many people say prayer helps. Some also say that calling on their religious beliefs and commanding what they see to leave helps them.
- Don’t take recreational drugs.
- Check if any sleeping pills or herbal remedies you’re taking are causing it.
- Once the episode has passed, tell yourself that you overcame it, are not afraid and will always overcome it.
How I recently stopped an episode of sleep paralysis
I successfully used two of the above techniques to stop a recent episode of sleep paralysis.
I woke to find myself in a strange position with my arms crossed on top of my body. And I could literally feel strong hands pinning my wrists to my chest.
I have to admit I was immediately petrified. The whole event was blurry, and I think I was having some dream overlap, but can’t remember exactly what now.
Stay calm and wiggle a finger
Two things sprung to mind after a moment of panic: stay calm and try to wiggle a finger.
The calmness I only managed with moderate success. But I did manage to focus my efforts on moving a finger. It felt quite odd – like my fingers were wiggling in different directions!
Eventually, I felt my arms loosen as well, and soon afterward I was able to shake the whole sensation away as I regained full control.
I then spent a few minutes doing some breathing exercises to ground myself and calm down, and then fell asleep again.
I think just knowing about the finger wiggling technique was enough for me to remember it when the sleep paralysis occurred.
You can find some useful ideas in my article about nightmares and night terrors. Some of the methods there about changing the content of your dreams might be helpful.
For any readers wondering if there’s a genetic factor involved in sleep paralysis, it seems that there could be.
A study by researchers at Sheffield University in 2015 showed this in their research into twins who experience sleep paralysis.
And in 2016, another British study looked into the fascinating connection between sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming. They also examined the relationship between sleep paralysis and well-being, poor sleep and stress.
Have you had sleep paralysis? What happened, and do you have any suggestions to help others deal with it?
Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.