The Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis
Anybody who has been reading this blog for a while will know that I often suffer from sleep paralysis.
(If you don’t know what that is, here is my colourful description)
Sleep paralysis has pretty much been explained by science, although there are still aspects that we don’t understand. We’ll get to that later though. For the moment, what exactly do we know about sleep paralysis?
Sleep Paralysis is Good
If our brains didn’t paralyse us as we slept, then we’d be up and acting out our dreams.
And this isn’t theoretical, there are numerous cases of people doing this, sometimes resulting in fatalities.
So sleep paralysis is doing us a favour, it only becomes a problem when it occurs outside of actual sleep.
This phenomenon is known as either awareness during sleep paralysis or isolated sleep paralysis, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m going to refer to it simply as sleep paralysis.
Stages of Sleep and Sleep Paralysis
There is a lot that we don’t know about sleep – we’re not even sure exactly why we need it at all, and don’t even get me started on why we dream – but there is a general consensus about certain things.
Most researchers agree that there are five stages of sleep, occurring in repeating cycles of 90-120 minutes throughout a person’s sleep period.
Stage one is light sleep. We are ‘drifting off’ at this point, and it doesn’t take much to wake us. This stage is commonly associated with muscle twitches and what are known as ‘hypnic jerks’ – which are those odd sensations where you feel as though you’re falling and your body suddenly judders and wakes you up.
At stage two we drift further into sleep. Muscle activity lowers and we start to become much less aware of the external environment.
Stages three and four are often grouped together as one single stage. Here, our brain waves slow right down. Using electroencephalography (in essence, reading the electrical activity of the brain), researchers will see long ‘delta’ waves here. These stages are considered to be the most rejuvenating and restful.
Stage five is the REM sleep stage, also known as paradoxical sleep, also known as ‘the stage where the weird stuff happens’. I’m going to hand over to Derek here, the sleep technician from my novel Sleep No More, to explain the rest:
“Stage five is my favourite part because fun things start happening. You start breathing more rapidly and not as regularly, your muscles are paralysed and your eyes jerk around all over the place. If you want to know where sleep paralysis lives, it’s here Chief. Your brain actually paralyses you – think about that, our brain paralyses us every single night! It does this so we don’t start trying to get up and act out our dreams in our bedrooms, which is a good thing. But…”
He paused for effect and raised a finger. Anthony – whose name was now apparently Chief – wondered just how many hours this man had spent studying sleeping strangers from this dark little room.
“When there’s overlap between this stage and waking up,” Derek continued, gesticulating excitedly, “then your brain might get confused and keep you paralysed for a while. On top of that, your heart rate gets quicker too, your body can’t regulate its temperature properly anymore, and your blood pressure ratchets up. Imagine it Chief, imagine waking up paralysed, in the middle of the night, with your heart racing a hundred miles an hour, and feeling either unbearably hot or painfully cold. Not nice, Chief. It’s the kind of thing that, over enough time, would drive a person insane…”
He gave a throaty chuckle but Anthony didn’t join in. He suddenly felt the legs of a hundred spiders scuttling down his back.
So sleep paralysis is essentially a ‘glitch’ where our brains keep us paralysed even though we’ve already woken up.
There is, of course, more to the sleep paralysis phenomenon than not being able to move though, which leads us nicely to…
Hallucinations and Sleep Paralysis
One of the big ‘unknowns’ of sleep paralysis is why sufferers often sense or see a malevolent presence in the room with them. A common experience is of an entity sitting on the chest of the victim (as famously portrayed in a painting by Henry Fuseli entitled ‘The Nightmare’).
Hallucinations of this type are known as hypnopompic hallucinations, although unfortunately giving something a silly name doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
As Creepy Derek said above, REM sleep is where sleep paralysis lives. It’s also where our most vivid dreams live too, and so hypnopompic hallucinations could be explained as ‘leakage’ of these dreams into reality (in the same way that sleep paralysis ‘leaks’ into wakefulness). By virtue of the fact that we are awake – albeit not fully – it follows that we might ‘see’ elements of our dreams in our actual, real surroundings.
In addition, the part of the brain responsible for intense emotions – the amygdala – is heightened as we dream, which would amplify the emotions we feel. Waking up paralysed will of course evoke negative emotions, and so the fact our amygdala is already heightened would mean those emotions are likely to be extreme.
In short, why wouldn’t we feel terror?
So we have an explanation for the paralysis itself, the hallucinations, and the extreme feelings of panic. So we can all go home now, yeah?
The strangest thing about sleep paralysis, and the only thing that none of the research or literature has been able to explain, is why different people all seem to hallucinate similar – if not exactly the same – images.
Very often it’s an old hag, sitting on the chest of the victim, and/or a shadowy presence in the corner of the room.
If the ‘members’ of these specific groups all shared apparitions common to each other – for instance, people in the West all seeing one type of figure, and people in the Far East seeing another type – then the argument could be made for societal influence, or that the inherent values or views of those particular groups could have influenced their hallucinations.
But these apparitions – old hag, sitting on chest, shadowy figure – are common to hugely diverse groups all over the world, and also to people throughout the centuries. This means that a person who suffered sleep paralysis two hundred years ago may well have seen exactly the same apparition that you might see tonight.
Looking at it that way, it’s no wonder that some people ascribe sleep paralysis not to glitches in the sleep process or dream-like states, but to supernatural phenomena.
Breaking the Spell of Sleep Paralysis
Ok, so we’ve looked at what it is, but what can we do to stop it?
One strategy that a lot of people claim helps them, is to sleep on their front as it means that if and when they wake up paralysed, then at least nothing can possibly be sitting on their chest.
Personally, I tried this but it actually made things worse. In short, instead of waking up paralysed with a pressure on my chest, I woke up paralysed with my face pushed into my pillow and unable to breathe.
(I’ve actually managed to find something worse than sleep paralysis. Yay, me!)
Most of the other ‘cures’ revolve around the same idea; move something, anything, and you’ll break the paralysis.
This one did actually work for me for a long time. If I stayed calm and focused on moving, say, a finger or a toe, then as soon as it twitched I could move the rest of my body again.
Unfortunately, this stopped working after a while as my brain decided to play an even meaner trick on me. In short, I’d wake up paralysed but nothing would work to break the paralysis because I wouldn’t actually be awake.
Yup, my sleep paralysis has evolved to the point where I now have dreams within dreams whereby I think I wake up with sleep paralysis, but I’m actually still asleep. So nothing works to stop it.
It’s like an even-more-confusing version of Inception.
And if anybody has got a cure for that, I’m all ears…
Sleep No More is my psychological thriller about a young woman whose vivid nightmares begin leaching into reality. Sleep deprived and desperate, she begins to doubt her own mind – and finds herself in a deadly race against time…