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  • Writer's pictureNicola Barclay

The terrifying experience of sleep paralysis

Having been in the field of sleep science/medicine for over a decade I like to think I have a grasp on what sleep disorders feel like. I’ve experienced insomnia on and off for years but last night I had my first encounter of something new.

For the first time in my life I experienced sleep paralysis. I’ve known about this phenomenon, read case studies, spoken first hand to patients, read scientific descriptions, theoretical explanations, and historical texts, but none of that prepared me for how terrifying this is. Even knowing so much about it, I woke up (thank God - and I’m not religious!) in a frenzy, scared to close my eyes and go back to sleep.

I had ALL the text book features - a creepy woman bathed in a white aura who crawls into bed with you, presses down on your body, and forbids you of talking. I was totally immobile, couldn’t move a muscle despite feeling my legs were being moved against my will, all the time being whispered creepy things in my ear by this woman in white. I tried to shout out to my husband to “wake me up, wake me up!”  I tried to shout it from the depths of my lungs, tried to shake myself to get his attention, but I couldn’t move a muscle. No noise uttered from my lips no matter how hard I tried to shout. I felt pure fear like I’ve never felt before, despite being able to rationalise it as sleep paralysis in my lucid state. Eventually a small utterance emerged and as soon as I heard my own voice the paralysis ended, and I said to my husband “Why the hell didn’t you wake me up?!?” He said all he heard was a little whimper (which apparently I sometimes do in my sleep).

I then walked around the room a few times, checking reality by turning on the lights and slapping my body to check I was totally awake. I then sobbed and sobbed. It was exhausting. 

This experience has given me a whole new perspective on this phenomenon. Thankfully, for most people ‘isolated sleep paralysis’ can be a one time occurrence and never happen again (upto 60% of people have been reported to experience this at least once in their life). But for some people this can become chronic and happen frequently. It can also occur as part of other sleep disorders (narcolepsy) or medical conditions.  

It occurs during REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep), which is a sleep stage when we are naturally paralysed so that we don’t act out our dreams. This sleep stage also features vivid  dreams and imagery. Sleep paralysis occurs during an incomplete transition from REM sleep to wake or other sleep stages, so that waking conscious activity occurs during the normal REM Antonia (paralysis), and dreams can turn to hallucinations.

It’s fascinating that case reports of this almost always feature a white aura around a strange woman (perhaps a succubus; or when in a male form - incubus). I have read scientific explanations as to why this may be (I’m a firm skeptic on many things and don’t believe in ghosts or folklore). It’s possible that the sensation of pressure on the chest is because of the natural reduction on muscle activity during REM sleep and that the relative difficulty in consciously controlling your breathing is incorporated into your dream imagery as someone disabling your breathing. As for the presence of an unwanted bedroom intruder, Jalal and Ramachandran suggest that such an experience is related to a mismatch between brain neurons in the superior parietal lobule of our cerebral cortex representing our bodily position in physical space, and the control of our motor neurons and visual system. We ‘see’ a neurological representation of our homunculus, sometimes in the form of an intruder. This can also account for why some individuals experience out-of-body experiences, where their sense of self is projected above the body, and one can feel that they ‘see’ themselves from a different perspective. Why this intruder can sometimes be incredibly scary and sexually inappropriate may relate to the increased activity of emotional circuitry during REM sleep, coupled with the increased imagery but lack of physical control. 

There are known triggers (stress and sleep deprivation being a couple) so it is possible to identify the times it might be more likely to happen, and there are techniques to prevent it in cases where this becomes frequent, when sleep is seriously disturbed and it becomes debilitating. But still knowing all this, I am terrified to go back to sleep (yes, I’m writing this at 2:44am). 

Tell me your experiences - and let’s make more people aware of this so that if this happens to you, you’re clued up as to what to expect. 

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