Imagine this scene: You’re falling asleep in bed, or are you waking up? You’re disorientated, unable to move, speak, or react to anything. Then you feel it: a presence in the room. Terrified (understandably), you think about making your escape - but you can’t. You lay there feeling paralysed, as if this suspected presence is holding you still. So what on earth is happening?
You may have come across a documentary released in 2015 called The Nightmare. This documentary focuses on people suffering from sleep paralysis recreating their experiences in dramatisations, with often terrifying results.
Sleep paralysis has a fairly straightforward definition: it’s when you cannot move or speak as you are waking up or falling asleep.
So what causes sleep paralysis and what’s with the terrifying hallucinations?
What happens during sleep paralysis
Let’s start with the basics. During sleep paralysis you will probably feel some, if not all, of the following:
- you’re awake but cannot move, speak or open your eyes;
- like someone is in your room;
- like something is pushing you down; and
Estimates vary as to what percentage of the population experiences sleep paralysis. Some studies suggest that anywhere between 1.7% and 40% of people experience sleep paralysis whereas others suggest its more likely between 8% and 50%, with about 5% of people having regular episodes. Interestingly, males and females have been found to suffer bouts of sleep paralysis equally.
Through a number of studies, several types of hallucinations have been linked to sleep paralysis. These include the belief that there is an intruder in the room, the presence of an incubus or demon, and the sensation of floating.
The description of the sleep paralysis demon differs depending on you ask, as shown in The Nightmare.
For some people, they see a faceless or shapeless presence, some see deceased relatives, others see what they believe to be aliens. Sleep paralysis isn’t new and has been described throughout history. It’s actually considered to have played a role in the creation of stories about alien abduction and other paranormal events, as if these episodes are so realistic that the person experiencing them begins to adopt it as reality.
What’s really going on
There’s good news! Whilst sleep paralysis is very real, the hallucinations are not.
Sleep paralysis happens when you wake up during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is the stage of sleep when dreams typically occur. During this period, your brain turns off signals to the rest of your body to keep it from moving or acting out your dreams.
If you suddenly wake up for one reason or another while still in this phase you will find yourself fully conscious but unable to move as the connection between your brain and body hasn’t quite caught up with the situation.
Wait - what does hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations even mean?
Often mistaken for nightmares, hypnagogic hallucinations occur when you are falling asleep and hypnopompic hallucinations occur when you are waking. If you think you’re seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, or feeling things when you’re asleep, there’s a possibility you may not be dreaming and are in fact experiencing a hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination. As previously mentioned, dreams occur during the REM stage of sleep, whereas these hallucinations occur in the consciousness state between waking and sleeping.
The disruption of your REM sleep stage effectively puts you in the surreal state of being in the real world whilst simultaneously experience something very similar to a dream. Basically a perfect storm that causes you to see things that aren’t really there. You instead see a distorted view of what’s around you - that pile of laundry on the chair in your room that you’ve been ignoring suddenly has the ability to turn into a terrifying demonic presence.
Causes of sleep paralysis
As you’d expect, the usual suspects for sleep disruption increase the likelihood of sleep paralysis:
- stress or anxiety;
- disrupted sleeping patterns;
- sleep deprivation;
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
- jet lag;
- heartburn; and
You’re also more likely to be disrupted during REM sleep from snoring or undiagnosed sleep apnoea when you sleep on your back.
Things you can do to help prevent sleep paralysis
There are ways to avoid episodes of sleep paralysis and keep the demons at bay as it were.
- Adopt and maintain a healthy sleep schedule by getting between 6 - 8 hours of sleep a night.
- Create a bedtime routine and stick to it. This means avoiding big meals, smoking, or drinking alcohol or caffeine shortly before going to bed.
- Do not sleep on your back. It may be difficult at times so try using pillow to prevent you from rolling over during the night.
- Talk with your doctor about any underlying conditions you have or medications you take. There may be a simple way to prevent episodes of sleep paralysis.
- Exercise regularly but not too close to bedtime.
- Practice deep breathing, meditation and simple yoga before bedtime to relax and unwind.
- Try a DORMU cooling weighted blanket. These weighted blankets are designed to calm your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your brain that activates during fight or flight) giving you a better chance of a sleeping through the night.
Sleep paralysis can be scary, but rest assured the demons and aliens aren’t really there. Try out some of our tips for reducing the likelihood of sleep paralysis but if you are experiencing frequent disruptive episodes, get in touch with your doctor or healthcare provider.