By Mimi Pettibone
During R.E.M. sleep, an interesting thing happens: the body becomes physically paralyzed. Most of the time we are not consciously aware of it, because we are asleep and in the dream state. But occasionally a person will wake up and become aware of the fact that they cannot move, and that’s when fear and panic set in. The eyes can still be moved, but the body cannot. The experience usually lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but that time can feel like a terrifying eternity.
It is believed that sleep paralysis is a protective mechanism so that we don’t physically act out our dreams, which prevents us from harming ourselves or others. While most of the time the transition between sleeping and waking goes smoothly, it is estimated that anywhere from 20-30% of the world’s population will at some time experience a ‘glitch in the system’, a.k.a. the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
The causes are generally unknown. For some people it may be triggered by factors such as increased stress, lack of sleep, a changing sleep schedule, substance abuse, sudden changes in lifestyle, or use of certain medications. For others, it can be associated with narcolepsy, or night time leg cramps. For most people there is no determining explanation.
While scary, it is only temporary, and for the majority of people it may happen once or twice in a lifetime and is nothing to worry about. If the issue is ongoing, seek help from a sleep specialist or read the books mentioned at the end of this article for further resources.
SLEEP PARALYSIS ATTACKS
While many people may experience sleep paralysis as described above, others report an additional occurrence that happens while in this paralyzed state: the sensation of being visited by some kind of entity. Coined ‘Paralysis Attacks’ by David Hufford, Professor of Behavioral Science at Penn State University, it is described by those who experience it as a visitation by an negative presence. Hufford has done extensive research, and has been able to identify over 30 common elements to these attacks. The prevailing common denominators are:
The Fuseli painting ‘The Nightmare’ is believed to be a depiction of a sleep paralysis attack, and accounts of this phenomenon are documented in art and literature as far back as we have historical records. In fact, Professor Hufford has not found a culture anywhere throughout history that does not have a tradition describing it. Known by different names around the world: ‘The Old Hag’, ‘Popabawa’, ‘Demon’, ‘Witch’, or just a dark figure or shadow, the description of the experience is the same.
People in the state of sleep paralysis are able to accurately describe their environment and usually feel like they are awake when it happens. Outsiders have speculated that maybe they are really asleep and just dreaming. However, brain wave recordings taken during attacks show elements of both wakefulness and REM sleep happening at the same time.
It would be easy enough to attribute the whole sensation to a bad dream or nightmare, but that doesn’t explain why so many people - including many who have never heard of this phenomenon - report such similarities in their accounts. While there are variations in individual reports, the similarities cannot be ignored. In fact, the descriptions bear uncanny similarity to alien visitation reports, and Hufford believes these are actually cases of sleep paralysis attacks.
Science as of yet does not have a sufficient explanation for this baffling phenomenon, which does not reduce the suffering of those who experience this terrifying occurrence. For more information and resources, check out Hufford’s book: ‘The Terror That Comes In The Night’, or Ryan Hurd’s ‘Sleep Paraylsis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night‘. Ryan himself has experienced sleep paralysis and provides some excellent resources and practical techniques for managing it.
Mimi Pettibone is the creator of the ‘Enchanted Art Oracle Cards’, and offers private consultations at East West Bookshop. Her practice includes dream interpretation, tarot and oracle readings, and personal growth work focused on relationships, communication and authentic life path. Her background includes social psychology, spirituality, dreams, intuition, and consciousness. Mimi is also a monthly dream columnist for the New Spirit Journal