Tuesday 12 December 2017

Sleep paralysis: 'I woke up and felt trapped in my body'

A nightmare is one thing, but hallucinating about a hag-like figure sitting on top of you while you can't scream or move is an entirely different experience, usually brought on by anxiety or stress. Jamie Ball has the fascinating insights into sleep paralysis

The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli depicts the ‘hag’ people often seen during sleep paralysis
The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli depicts the ‘hag’ people often seen during sleep paralysis

Four out of five of us have experienced it at some stage: a terrifying paralysis just as you enter or exit sleep, where an otherworldly presence is seemingly heard, seen or felt in the room, only you are unable to move, scream or get rid of it.

Welcome to the world of sleep paralysis. You're not alone, but neither are you "witnessing" paranormal presences best left to the X-Files team.

According to Dr Jonathan Egan, director of clinical practice at the School of Psychology in NUI Galway, the main features of sleep paralysis are "the inability to move, a perception that there is someone or something in their room, that the person is being touched or being strangled or sat on or molested, and that there can be a sense of movement of self or bedsheets. Hearing noises or voices or breathing is also common".

Along with trainee clinical psychologist Michelle Tomas, Egan has just directed the largest survey on sleep paralysis ever completed in Ireland or Europe. Out of 1,770 starters, 1,199 people living in Ireland completed the online cross-sectional study earlier this year.

Health & Living magazine can reveal that about 80pc of respondents reported at least one experience of sleep paralysis in their lives. Eighteen percent reported one to three episodes of sleep paralysis; 19pc reported four to 10 episodes; 15pc reported 11-20 episodes, and more than a quarter (27pc) reported over 20 such experiences in their lifetime.

"Sleep paralysis is associated with movement into and from the Rapid Eye Movement [REM] stage of sleep," says Egan.

"With sleep paralysis, however, the person is both awake and also still in REM. Therefore the content of their dream state and the environment they awaken into become merged.

"REM sleep is associated with paralysis, in order to prevent people from acting out their dreams. So most people can only move their eyes when they experience an attack of sleep paralysis and they feel like shouting out for help, but their vocal chords cannot respond to the need."

In fact, a previous online survey in the US found that 98pc of those who experienced sleep paralysis reported the experience as frightening, especially since it can last from mere seconds to 20 minutes, in some extreme cases.

The NUI survey found that half of respondents reported that they thought there was something wrong with their physical well-being or that they were losing their mind, while only 10pc thought that "an alien or magical entity" caused their experience.

Furthermore, the paralysis appears to be only tentatively related to anxiety, mood, stress, worry, previous/current mental health difficulties or sleep hygiene (i.e. the "recommended behavioural and environmental practice that is intended to promote better quality sleep," according to one definition).

For at least centuries, sleep paralysis appears to have been near-universal. However, its interpretation - much like our interpretation of dreams - is heavily weighted towards cultural environment (including propensity for superstition) and/or religion or belief system. Worldwide, these experiences have cemented their place in respective national folklores.

In Mexico, the folk expression for this phenomenon translates as, "a dead body climbed on top of me," whereas in Japan the expression "Kanashibari," translates as "metal bands binding a person." In Thailand (where the experience goes by "Pee ahm" - pee meaning "ghost") some people wear monk-blessed amulets to ward off such spirits each night, while China, Canada, South Africa and South America have their own cultural tags and twists in naming and explaining the hallucination.

Closer to home, in Slavic and Germanic folklore a "Mare" is best described as an evil omen or spirit which sits upon sleepers' chests, inducing terrifying nightmares, from which the Swedish word "mardröm" comes (literally, "mara-dream").

However, in traditional Irish folklore, the closest we have appears to be its very distant and ancient cousin, the handsome Gancanagh, or Gean Cánach, meaning "Love Talker." This supposedly charming, well-dressed male fairy was famed for seducing sleeping women, resulting in it being misinterpreted by non-Celtic cultures as an Irish incubus (an evil male spirit that lies upon sleeping women, forcing sex upon them).

For those people who have frequently experienced sleep paralysis, viewing it through the lens of a post-traumatic stress disorder might be a more helpful way to address it, according to Egan and Tomas.

"These people often report that they fear they are going to die during an attack," says Egan. "Therefore, the episodes might be viewed akin to a person experiencing a real-life physical or sexual assault."

If experiencing such regular paralysis, Egan recommends trying cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), addressing sleep hygiene and cutting out any stimulants or alcohol. If on medication, perhaps check with your GP if it could be contributing to the hallucinations, but also look at having a child light on in your room overnight.

"Others find moving their extremities, toes and fingers, helps them move out of a sleep paralysis episode," Egan says.

Sleep paralysis according to survey participants

The sensed presence

"I woke up on my back […] in the early hours, and felt trapped in my body. I couldn't move at all. I slowly became aware of someone (something?) else in the room, possibly more than one. There was a dark figure with no visible features. It did not move, but was standing in the corner of the room and was very sinister and frightening."

The intruder with no face

"I am aware of a rustling sound towards the foot of my bed and I am able to strain my eyes to look toward the sound. I see a small man standing there flicking through a newspaper - this is the rustling sound. […] I realise he has no face, just a black void. Without actually seeing him move, he is suddenly right next to me. He is bent 90° from the waist, and his empty black face is right up in my face and it is then that I begin violently trying to wiggle my fingers and toes to 'break' the paralysis. This is usually effective after a little moment, and I wake up fully to my empty bedroom."

The old woman or hag

There was an old woman in the top right corner of my room. She just stared at me for what seemed like ages. She made her way to me in bed and sat on my chest. I could feel her sitting on my chest and looking at me. I tried very hard to move, to no avail."

The child

The first time I felt I was awake and there was a little boy of seven-years-old standing at the foot of my bed. I felt panic but I couldn't wake up […] I eventually awoke after what seemed like one or two minutes. The second time I was lying in bed and there was a little girl lying beside me in bed with a white and red dress on. She seemed to also be about seven-years-old. She was stroking my hair but again I was paralysed and I couldn't wake myself up."

Multiple attackers

I remember something waking me. I looked down at the end of my bed to see a tall figure looming over me, bending over me with the room. And four other figures to its side. I then could feel some invisible creature kneeling on my chest choking me. It felt as if there were others holding down my limbs."

Unable to scream

"I woke up early in the morning, the bedroom was bright, my eyes were open, but I could not move or speak. I saw a moving dark shadow in the corner of the bedroom, tried to scream and move but couldn't. Then it felt like something was sitting on my chest and it was getting harder and harder to breath. I kept trying to scream and move but couldn't and then I finally woke up after what felt like ages."

- Extracts from sleep paralysis survey conducted by the School of Psychology in NUI Galway

Top 5 sleep paralysis signs

1. Sensed Threat: a presence in the room, being touched and/or unusual sounds

2. Dissociation: you temporarily leave your body and are looking down on yourself from above

3. Somatic: unusual smells, erotic arousal, body moving/spinning/lifting

4. Fear of Death: sense of being strangled, smothered or pressure on chest

5. Immobility: unable to speak or open eyes.

- Data from sleep paralysis survey conducted by the School of Psychology in NUI Galway

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