Ryan Hurd, today’s guest blogger and expert on Sleep Paralysis, sheds light on a sometimes-frightening sleep phenomenon
Q: What if any relationship exists between sleep paralysis, which I’ve experienced when I was 15-40 years old, and dream states?
A: Sleep paralysis is deeply tied to dreaming. In fact, the easiest way to think about sleep paralysis is dreaming with your eyes open, while also experiencing the muscle paralysis that comes with dreaming sleep. Body asleep, mind awake.
Most of the time, sleep paralysis (SP) is a harmless symptom that occurs when the brain does not shift its neurochemical gears all at once. For most, SP comes when sleep is disrupted and we are stressed, bodily and mentally. In these cases, SP can be managed by attending to personal sleep health as well as stress management. However, for thousands of others, SP is not so gentle, and is a symptom of a larger health issue such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea, as well as other health conditions that rob the body of healthy sleep. In these cases, SP is treated clinically to manage the symptoms, although there is no cure.
The feelings of paralysis, which can also feel like a weight on the chest or throat, generally last less than a minute or two. Dreamers say, “I feel like someone is holding me down!” The paralysis is actually a normal part of REM sleep, which we experience every night unawares. With the big skeletal muscles offline, the sleeper is free to engage in the energetic REM state without fear of acting out a dream, so as not to be a danger to self or sleep partners. But during SP, the sleeper can feel not only the paralysis but is also well aware what is happening, giving the episode a strangely lucid feel that some people say is “realer than real.” Others are adamant, “It was not a dream. I was awake!”
Beyond Paralysis: Fear and the Stranger in the Room
The defensiveness of being awake and aware is probably due to the more unusual qualities of SP that are not really hinted at in the bland medical term. Many feel terrible and heightened fear, sometimes strong enough to be labeled death anxiety. Others detect a “sensed presence” or stranger in the room, the uncanny feeling that they are not only alone, but being watched keenly by an evil presence. This aspect of SP is no doubt the root of hundreds of ghost stories and folklore.
About 20% of sufferers of SP experience not only the awareness of the paralysis and mental clarity and the fear, but also strange dream-like visions, known as hypnagogic hallucinations. This is where SP really begins to sound more like a vision state than a dream. The hallucination generally is a person, or perhaps I should say an entity, as the personage can be an animal hybrid, an ethereal spirit, or a pale and thin toothed alien other. The paralysed dreamer sees the entity standing over them, and may also watch helplessly as the entity holds them down. The occurrences can get violent, and in fact often are sexually violent.
In Medieval times, the entity was known as the incubus—a male demon that sought out unsuspecting female dreamers. Men were similarly visited by a succubus, who could be alluring but may morph into a terrible form during the sexual act. Dozens of “supernatural assault” traditions are known around the world today. In the West, sleep paralysis symptoms can be seen in alien abduction lore. What is unclear today is how common are sexual hallucinations that come with sleep paralysis, and indeed, how many of them are nightmarish compared with more pleasurable experiences.
On the Bright Side
In my studies, I have been surprised to discover that there are also completely positive accounts of sleep paralysis-related visitations, including ancestral visits, deceased loved ones, sexually healing encounters, as well as contact with positive healing figures such as angels and medicine men.
By affirming that one is safe within the sleep paralysis encounter, and with an attitude of curiosity and courage, many dreamers have found sleep paralysis to be a portal to several other extraordinary states of awareness, such as mystical guided journeys, lucid dreaming, and out-of-body experiences.
Personally, I have had both the positive and the negative encounters, and sometimes, even after all these years, I get frightened and must resort to ejecting myself from the encounter. At least, I figure, I can try again, as it seems I another encounter with the creatures of sleep paralysis is just around the corner.
For more on this topic, check out my book on the topic: Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night.
Ryan Hurd is editor of DreamStudies.org, a website dedicated to sleep, dreams and consciousness studies. He is also the curator of Dream Studies Press, where he has published several ebooks and showcases other interesting dream-related products. Ryan lectures internationally, and teaches at the Rhine Education Center. He is also a current board member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and a member of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness.