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.
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 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 in fact surprisingly common. A review of 35 previous sleep paralysis studies in 2011 found that 7.6% of the general population had experienced sleep paralysis in their lifetime, with an even higher figure of 28.3% of students. And the prevalence rises again for people who have narcolepsy (around 40%).
You may have experienced it yourself, but until now not known what it was you were going through. So now we have a name for it, it might be helpful to know what causes it, and what you can do about it.
Accepting the cause is something which I now know many readers struggle with. Although sleep paralysis has a solid scientific explanation (as you’ll see below), the feeling can be so real that you may find it difficult to accept the scientific explanation.
Cultural, religious, esoteric and personal beliefs can all play a role in how you view sleep paralysis. And with that, how you decide to cope with any future episodes.
Polls – what’s your experience of sleep paralysis?
I ran several polls to find out more about readers’ experience of sleep paralysis. With thousands of people voting, they provide a fascinating insight into the variety of experiences people have.
In poll 1, you can see that many have had the experience of thinking there was a demon or other being in the room.
I imagine that many people who search online for information about sleep paralysis will have had the more intense experiences, perhaps skewing the results. But it’s still interesting to see how common that particularly scary feature is.
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. Having said that, there are still plenty of people who don’t find it so scary.
Poll 3 shows that most people first experience sleep paralysis before they reach 20.
Fortunately, poll 4 shows that most readers don’t experience sleep paralysis on a regular basis. If you’re one of those who do experience it regularly though, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your doctor.
Poll 5 shows some of the things that have helped people stop sleep paralysis. You can also find more coping mechanism further on in this 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. And so the 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?
- That there’s an intruder or other presence in the room.
- That there’s 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 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.
- 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 common experience of an intruder or 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’re not alone as being that the additional presence is something bad – thus creating a hallucination which is demonic or malevolent in some way.
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 also working out where the body physically is in space.
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, sometimes your dream imagery can appear to ‘map’ onto the real world.
So you may have your eyes open, but still see, hear or feel some of the strange or frightening things which you were just dreaming about, even if you can’t remember that you were just dreaming.
Then you add the physiological elements that come with suddenly finding yourself paralyzed, and you have all the ingredients for being very 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 aren’t completely sure, but in most cases it’s thought to be associated with one or more of the following:
- Sleep deprivation.
- Irregular sleep patterns – particularly with shift work or jet lag.
- A family history of sleep paralysis.
- Poor sleep hygiene.
- Sleeping on your back rather than your side or front.
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, 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.
Thankfully, it’s extremely 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 while they help themselves to your valuables.
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.
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.
What I would like to suggest though is this: 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 sleep paralysis demon encounters so much easier to not dwell on and go back to sleep. And not dwelling too much on the experience is what many people do manage to successfully do.
Around the world
Interestingly, 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 sometimes seen as a deceased relative coming 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.
Many 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 a kind angel or fairy spending some quality time with you in the night.
I know from readers’ comments that some people do believe that demons or other evil entities exist. Some talk about them within a religious framework, others simply feel that there’s a lot which science can’t explain yet.
Among all of the comments from people who do believe these things there’s one common, and important, theme: nothing bad actually happened to them.
This then raises another question: if there are so many terribly evil beings out there, why is it that they do no more than scare people?
3. The out-of-body experience
When I was a teenager, I picked up a book in a library which claimed to be a training manual for astral projection. The idea being 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 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 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, just 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.
Using sleep paralysis as a springboard…
There are many websites claiming that sleep paralysis has a biological cause, but can then be used as a springboard for lucid dreaming or astral projection.
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 or impossible idea (especially if your personal experience has been terrifying!), you’ll find several detailed comments below from readers who say they’ve been able to do just 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 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 sleep paralysis demon 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 feel anxious about going to sleep.
- You don’t get enough sleep.
- You feel very sleepy during the day or 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:
- They may refer you to a sleep specialist to rule out the possibility of narcolepsy.
- They may prescribe an anti-depressant medication, such as clomipramine, for a short period.
- They might consider whether there’s 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 developing good sleep hygiene techniques, which is thought to help reduce the frequency of sleep paralysis. The most important ones being to keep a regular sleep schedule, and not allow yourself to become sleep deprived.
Readers’ techniques for coping with sleep paralysis
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 contributing.
Please bear in mind that there’s no evidence that some of these work, other than the fact that people have said they help them personally. Remember that what works for one person may not for you.
- Don’t let yourself become sleep deprived as it often happens more then.
- Try to keep a regular routine of going to sleep and waking up.
- Try to reduce stress and anxiety in your life.
- Stay calm and try not to panic.
- 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.
- Tell yourself that you’re actually in control. You can ‘order’ the experience to stop, or whatever you’re seeing to go away.
- If you feel a weight on your chest, try to imagine there’s something friendly causing it, such as a big happy dog.
- If it’s happening repeatedly, why not film yourself sleeping? This may be especially useful for people who have experiences where they feel that they have been physically ‘moved’ in their bed by some being, or their furniture has been moved. You would be able to reassure yourself that you weren’t actually dragged out of bed.
- Try wearing a sleep tracker and see if it records you as being awake or asleep at the time. It can also help check your heart rate and breathing during the night.
- Try not to think about what it ‘could’ be. Your imagination will probably make up something scary in the darkness.
- 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.
- Try to organize your bedroom in a way which makes you feel safe and secure. Look into Feng-Sui to make your bedroom feel peaceful.
- Don’t hang dressing gowns, coats or hats in places which look like figures in the dark.
- 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 aren’t in silent darkness.
- 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 regain 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 sleep with a high pillow.
- Keep your eyes shut and try to clear your mind instead of focusing on the things you can see.
- Try squeezing your eyes tightly shut if you’re able to control the muscles around your eyes.
- 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, get out of bed for a while to reset the brain. Perhaps also keep a light or music on when you go back to bed.
- Many people who have a faith say they find prayer can be helpful. 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 – either by discussing it with your doctor, or stopping taking them for a while.
- Once the episode has passed, it’s good to take a moment to remind yourself that you overcame it again. Tell yourself that you overcame it, are not afraid and will always overcome it.
How I recently stopped an episode of sleep paralysis
Since writing this article, I hadn’t had a single episode of sleep paralysis until recently. And I’m happy to report that I used two of the techniques in the above list to successfully stop it.
I woke up in the middle of the night to find myself in a strange position with my arms crossed on top of my body, almost like you see with medieval carvings of knights on tombs! And I could literally feel strong hands pinning my wrists to my chest.
I have to admit I was immediately very scared. The whole event was blurry, and I think I was having some dream overlap, but can’t remember exactly what now.
Two things sprung to mind after a brief moment of panic: ‘stay calm’, I said to myself, and ‘wiggle a finger’.
The calmness I only managed with moderate success, perhaps because this was the first episode in a long time, so I was caught off guard. But I did manage to focus my efforts on wiggling a finger.
In the haze of the night and the moment it felt quite odd, like my fingers were wiggling in different directions. But I think that’s possibly due to the disconnect between by body and brain with the paralysis.
Eventually I felt my arms loosen as well, and then soon afterwards 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.
It seems that just knowing about the finger wiggling technique was enough for my brain to remember to do it when the sleep paralysis occurred.
So my recommendation, from personal experience, is to plant that thought in your mind too!
The British National Health Service website has a section on sleep paralysis that you might find useful.
You can find some useful ideas in my article discussing how to stop nightmares and night terrors. Some of the ideas 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.
Finally, in 2016 another UK study looked into the fascinating connection between sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming. They all examined the relationship between sleep paralysis and well-being, poor sleep and stress.
Please read before leaving a comment
After 3 years of personally replying to comments, I’ve decided to leave this fascinating and helpful discussion to the readers. I’ll still read them all before publishing to make sure the content is suitable for younger readers. But time constraints mean I have to focus my attention on other parts of the site.
It’s always very interesting to hear your 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 comforting to know they’re not alone and perhaps find someone who has had similar experiences.
So feel free to talk about your experience of sleep paralysis, and if you have any more tips or techniques for dealing with it, I’ll add them to the growing list of readers’ suggestions.