Sleep paralysis - nightmare demons
Henry Fuseli's 'The Nightmare' (Wikipedia)

The nightmare of sleep paralysis demons, witches and ghouls

Sleep paralysis is a often terrifying disorder where sufferers can experience a 'waking nightmare'.

[toc] Imagine drifting through your dreams when slowly, you begin to become aware of your surroundings.

You realise you’re in bed awake and turn to move, except, you can’t move a muscle.

If that’s not frightening enough you being to sense there’s something or someone in the room with you – a shadowy figure starts to loom over your body, but you’re powerless to do anything.

It sounds like the familiar plot of a horror movie. But sadly, these experiences are all too real for people who suffer from sleep paralysis.

A 2011 study estimates that 8% of people will experience the condition in some way during their life: but with so many instances being written off as some other cause, the true number could be much higher.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak which happens when waking up, or falling asleep. A type of parasomnia, it can last anywhere between a few seconds to several minutes and usually happens when the person is supine (lying on their back). Sleep paralysis often occurs in patients suffering from narcolepsy.

Although it doesn’t cause any physical harm, the sensation of being unable to move can be very frightening and cause considerable anxiety. Many people experience additional symptoms which add to their trauma. These include:

  • sensing an intruder in the room – footsteps, voices, shadows etc
  • a weight or pressure on the chest
  • floating, levitation or out-of-body-experience
  • sensation of being choked, strangled or sexually assaulted

These hallucinations are most likely anxiety related, however, their frightening nature has led to a number of myths and legends being spawned throughout history.

 

035: Sleep paralysis explained – Professor Chris French

Identifying sleep paralysis

There are three key factors in a sleep paralysis episode which must all be present to make a diagnosis, according to the Sleep Paralysis Project:

  • The patient has an awareness that they are awake
  • The patient is aware of their surrounding environment
  • The patient is completely unable to move (muscle atonia)

These are the key features of a classic sleep paralysis episode. In reality, every sleeping person is experiencing sleep paralysis during their phasic REM phase – otherwise we would all be acting out our dreams!

The body shuts off and is able to rest, even though the mind continues working. In a sleep paralysis disorder, the atonia phase is accompanied by this unusual alertness and awareness – which can be extremely unnerving for the person affected, even if there are no other symptoms accompanying the episode.

What causes sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is associated with REM (rapid eye movement), the phase of sleep where we do most of our dreaming. During this time, the brain shuts down all non-vital muscle groups in the body, most likely to stop us acting out our dreams.

Sleep paralysis occurs when there’s a mistransmission of neural signals, and the brain fails to reactivate the muscles, rendering the patient conscious, but completely paralyzed. It is an anomalous REM state and a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of sleep.

The exact causes of sleep paralysis are unknown, but genetics are likely to play a big part. Apart from your genes however there are a number of other risk factors that can increase the chance of occurrence. These include:

  • lack of sleep
  • irregular sleep schedule
  • existing psychiatric condition ie bipolar disorder
  • drug or alcohol abuse
Sleep paralysis is a surprisingly common phenomenon, with up to 40% of the population having at least one incidence in their lifetime. Although it can affect men and women of any age, it usually first appears during the teenage years.
Age of sleep paralysis occurence
Image: University of Waterloo

The ‘paranormal’ symptoms of sleep paralysis

The 2015 documentary ‘The Nightmare’ focused on sufferers of sleep paralysis disorders, and the terrifying experiences they have when they go to bed. It highlights how complex the condition can be, and how it blurs the lines between sleep, dreams, mental health – and even the paranormal.

In many cases, there will be additional symptoms which accompany the episode of waking sleep paralysis. These can vary in severity, and might appear as standalone feelings or in combination with others. They include:

  • Pressure on the chest and difficulty breathing
  • Feeling the presence of someone or something in the room
  • An overwhelming feeling of terror, fear or sadness
  • Hallucinatory visions, smells, sounds and feelings

How these symptoms manifest varies from sufferer to sufferer. Some may find the feelings to be vague and almost indescribable, while others experience terrifying events in grim detail. Either way, the feeling of complete immobility and total awareness will be present.

Sleep paralysis through the ages

Over the centuries, many people have sought explanations for this mysterious condition often attributing it to an “evil” presence. Various cultural interpretations have been handed down through the ages, from the evil incubus, to demons and alien abductions.  From Ancient Greece to Shakespeare there are countless mentions of phenomena that are now understood to be references to sleep paralysis.

One of the most common is ‘Old Hag Syndrome’ a folklore myth where the sleeper awakes to find an old hag, or witch sitting, or riding on their chest, rendering them immobile. Similar legends exist in virtually every culture around the world, suggesting that sleep paralysis is not an uncommon phenomenon.

It is now thought that many previous reported incidences of demonic possession, ghostly encounters and other horrifying visions are actually the result of aware sleep paralysis episodes.

There are many historical references to the disorder’s existence which date back to the 10th Century AD, such as the famous ‘night hag’ syndrome. It’s such a common occurrence that the phenomena has permeated the world of art and culture, as seen in Henry Fuseli’s famous painting ‘The Nightmare’

Sleep Paralysis Demon Infographic
Info graphic via: HowToLucid.com

However, there is still no real understanding of the causes of sleep paralysis, making it a misunderstood and often undiagnosed condition. It is easy to see how a sufferer could mistake the incidents for some form of supernatural activity.

Often the visual hallucinations experienced represent common manifestations of scary figures – such as ghosts, demons, monsters and the dead (or even the undead).

What does sleep paralysis feel like?

The most common reported feeling with these sleep paralysis incidents is that of a presence in the room – a demon or similar being. Second is the feeling of being crushed, followed by the belief that an intruder had entered their home. Below are some comments from users of Reddit, describing their own sleep paralysis events:

“I saw a shadow-man walking around my room, disappearing behind my open door.”

“A little girl in the corner of my room staring at me. Then, without notice, she shrieks and runs up and starts choking me.”

“Even if I can’t see anything, there is an overwhelming presence in the room and it is always evil. I can’t move. I’m stuck.”

“Something banging and scraping on my bedroom door. I keep it locked at night because I have had ones where it opens by itself.”

Sleep paralysis treatment

There is currently no standard treatment available for sleep paralysis. There are, however, a few methods you can try to minimize the chances of an episode.

Improving sleep habits

Most people require six to eight hours of sleep each night so this should be your starting point. Another way to improve your chances of better sleep is by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Other ways to practice good sleep hygiene include:

  • creating a relaxing sleep environment
  • cutting down on alcohol, smoking and other stimulants
  • eating a healthy diet, at regular meal times
  • keeping a regular exercise routine
  • adequate exposure to natural light
  • avoiding TV, video games and computers before bed

Adjusting sleeping habits is one step that can make a difference to some sufferers: change the room temperature, get a better sleeping routine and try to stay hydrated at night.

While the experiences of demons and spooky ghosts in the room feel realistic to the person, remember that all of these feelings can be explained through science. The feeling of suffocating, for instance, is explained by the fact that when you fall asleep your breathing becomes automated.

As you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, you try to override this automation and start breathing on your own, which creates the suffocating feeling. Patients feeling overwhelmed by the symptoms might want to consider a therapy process, such as counselling or hypnotherapy, to help them cope.

Medication

If your sleep paralysis is more troublesome, your doctor may suggest a clinical treatment. Certain antidepressant medications have been shown to reduce the incidences of paralysis episodes, although it must be stressed that they do not work on every patient.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TA) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) -usually used to treat depression – are thought to have an effect on sleep paralysis by altering the amount and depth of REM sleep, preventing temporary paralysis on waking up/falling asleep. However, you should be aware of the potential side effects before considering a course of medication.

This is a guest post from VoucherBin

  1. Well if is a dream is ok and if is paralisis you can move but if they move somenthing like blanket and move your body half way isnt sleep paralisis is somenthing diferent and you stand up and see the blanket isnt where you have before this is supernatural

  2. Ok so look this is what happened. I fall asleep on my stomach and never ever had sleep paralysis before, well last night i did. I woke up i couldn’t move and felt an evil female presence putting a ton of pressure on my back i tried to move and yell to get off of me (i have anxiety btw) so i was having a panic attack. As i was struggling i was able to twitch my toe and was able to move my body again I’d only been asleep for 10 minutes and was scared shitless. The girl looked All black with long pointy fingers.

  3. I just had one of these episodes, I’m currently 18 and haven’t had one since I was 12, it’s always the same, I know I’m awake but I can’t move, I always see these glowing yellow eyes, usually in my door way or my closest or the corner of my room. But this time it was right in front of me, inches from my face, I could feel its breath on my face, feel it run its claws on my arm, I came to once it grabbed the side of my head and pushed me into my pillow, as if it was trying to hurt me, it was truly terrifying, the worst one I had yet… has anyone else experienced this man? I’m afraid it’ll get worse and worse

  4. I’ve had multiple different situation when it comes to my sleep paralysis but the last two have been by far the worst, I honestly believe I was trying to be possessed by a demon. It was legitimately a fight between something an I all night. I was a a Satanist at the time and that plus the Ouija board drawn in blood that we can’t paint over in the upstairs crawl space of my mom’s apartment (I was staying there at the time of the first demonic sleep paralysis) That night made me run to God and burn my satanic Bible and fear sleep all together…

  5. I also want to share my experience. I really want to know if Am I the one who dream about it? Or are they real? Im Jr and Im 23 now. I dream about a two groups in a room who is arguing. Each group had a leader. Both groups are lead by girls/woman. They are arguing about DREAMS (i think they are the masters/guardians of dream). The other one group is good and the other one is bad. But i know saw in there too that the group of making good dreams is out numbered, because the leader of bad dreams is convincing the members of it to join her, and i woke up. One night I was in that room again and i figure out that there was no members left on the group of good dreams. I saw them most of my dreams. They are chasing me In my dreams. They cant get help in there cause they are powerful. The can hypnotize the people in there and control them. You cant runaway from them how fast you run from them. I had tiring and sleepless nights because of them. And Im starting to believe that they are real and they are really exists. The guardians of dreams.

  6. When I was just a kid I already have weird dreams, some of them are good and some of there are bad. But I can if that dream is normal or not. When I was a kid I always dream about a tall white lady with a long hair. I see her every single dream of mine but i cant really see her face its just blurred. And I really dont know if shes good or bad, she’s just staring at me watching me in my dream. Then she’s gone for a couple of year. But shes back when i was in high school and i figure out that she’s good cause when i had a nightmare one night, there was a village of ASWANG’s(filipino monster/creature)and I was accidentally in there looking for company. And i figure out that its a village of demons and they hunt me and i runaway. I really want to wake because Im too tired but i cant and In the end of the road i saw the white lady but still i cant see her face and then the demons found me. The white lady hold my hand and i woke up. That is the last time i dream about her.

  7. Hello, i have it since childhood i used to have nightmares but then it stop until i grew up.. I’m now 23 and i started getting those really bad nightmares again. I can’t sleep properly i wake up each 2 hrs through the night, sometime i want to shout or speak but i can’t i want to move but i can’t. my mom started sleeping in my room too. She says i talk in my sleep but she can’t understand what i’m saying . sometimes i don’t remember.. but i know i hear sounds, i see shadows..and my hearts beats a lot in those moments.. i always wake up with a bad headache and painful neck.. I’m always sleepy but i cannot sleep well…

  8. Hi Shannon, of all the comments I’ve read yours has to be the one that I am able to relate to the most. I get the tingling too, every person I have read about or talked to doesn’t, nor do they hear the alarms (i also hear a combination of T.V. static and almost human screaming). I will tell you that we experience these when we are awake and conscious,therefore they are real, but what interests me about your experience is that you were able to turn your head, from what you said your position was face down meaning you had to move more than a twitch, which is the only movement I am capable of (in my right index, middle, or ring finger I cant exactly remember but I think it was my index) making when I am in sleep paralysis. I do have a few tips for our sleep demons: 1. under no circumstances do you leave your bed right after an episode (it/they could be malicious) , 2. do not think about them once the sun goes down (this is pretty much a spiritual invitation), 3. sleep with relaxing sounds playing (this blocks out the screaming and sometimes tricks our subconscious that we are hearing our mother’s pulse from inside the womb). Best of luck.

  9. Last night I woke up with terrible back pain and couldn’t go back to sleep for a while. I eventually did fall asleep on my stomach and then I felt like I was half asleep and half awake. I felt a ton of pressure on my back and my whole body began to tingle. It sounded like my alarm kept going off but I couldn’t move my arm to turn it off. The pressure on my back became more intense and then I moved my head to the left and saw a dark presence and I tried to yell “get off!” several times but I didn’t have a voice. Shortly after I woke up gasping for air. What in the world would have caused this? Was it just a bad dream? It all felt incredibly real, scary.

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