It is an eerie sensation to wake up feeling like you’re suffocating. As your panic rises, you realize that you can neither move nor talk. Something, or someone, seems to be holding you down. You try and fight back but it seems hopeless. You know you’re about to run out of oxygen and you need to breathe. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it’s over and you’re back in your bed – unharmed and finally breathing.
This sensation is called sleep paralysis. According to researchers, most people experience it once in a lifetime but there are some of us who get to experience it again and again.
Sleep paralysis has been linked to narcolepsy, while some claim that it helps them attain lucid dreams. To understand sleep paralysis, you need to know what the sleep patterns are. In your (REM) Rapid Eye Movement sleep (where you dream vivid dreams) your body goes in a muscle paralysis so you don’t act out in your sleep and hurt yourself or anyone around you. When you are about to wake up, you go into a non-REM sleep state and your body ‘wakes up’.
When you have sleep paralysis, your mind wakes up before your body has a chance to get into the non-REM sleep state, so you wake up unable to move, trapped in a dark, shadowy dream world.
For those who suffer from this regularly, sleep paralysis is a terrifying phenomenon, especially if you don’t understand what it is. Cultures have linked it to witches, ghosts, unclean spirits, demons and even the devil himself. Nearly every culture across the world has a term for this experience, which reveals that sleep paralysis is a more common occurrence than was thought of before.
Why then, is there not much public awareness about it? Often, sufferers feel that they will be laughed at or that no one will believe them. It also scares them because it is linked to alien abduction and demons.
Quite a few cases of alien abduction follow a similar pattern; a person wakes up unable to move or speak, they can sense a presence (or more than one) in the room, they have a sensation of being lifted and carried out. Those of a religious bent of mind consider these episodes to be demonic attacks; as a way for evil entities to try and occupy a human body.
There isn’t any documented way to stop sleep paralysis, but people who experience it say trying to move their big toes, calling God’s name, and/or remaining calm help end an episode. You can also try to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks before going to sleep and/or pray before you sleep.