So here's a quirky little nighttime oddity that can strike terror into your soul.
Sleep paralysis. It's the mechanism that stops you from acting out your dreams. It happens to you every single time you go to sleep, and you've probably never even been aware of it.
There's a lot to say about sleep paralysis. One the one hand, it's a very normal bodily process. One the other, it can be a terrifying sleep disorder. And on the third hand (yes, that's three hands now) it's the gateway to the lucid dream world. It covers quite the spectrum of emotions.
So, what causes you to become aware of sleep paralysis? What should you do to avoid triggering the horrific hallucinations associated with it? And how might you harness this state in order to enter a lucid dream?
The basic cause of sleep paralysis is REM atonia:
REM atonia is essential for healthy sleep, else you'd wreak havoc in your neighborhood by acting our your dreams on a nightly basis. This is no good for you, and no good for your neighbors.
As you fall asleep each night, the electrical nerve impulses are cut off between your muscles and your brain. Your brain can still tell your body to do stuff (such as run away from Saruman's dark army in yet another orc-fueled nightmare) but your body won't respond.
So far, so good. But what happens if you wake up and the REM atonia remains in place, albeit only for a few seconds? This is when we trip into the territory of sleep paralysis.
Do orcs dream? Yes, they dream of you. Running away in terror.
You can become aware of sleep paralysis when:
The natural reaction to waking up paralyzed is fear. Lots and lots of fear.
Unfortunately, in this borderland sleep state, it prompts the half-dreaming mind to conjure up nightmarish images to "explain" what is happening.
A vivid hallucination can ensue, featuring the sensation of being fully paralyzed while a baddie enters your bedroom and crushes your chest or tries to pull you out of bed. Sometimes the presence may just stand and observe while you float out of bed, as if caught in a tractor beam.
Sleep paralysis doesn't always invoke hallucinations, but if it does, it's common to see witches, ghosts, shadow people, aliens, angels, fairies and even cartoon characters. More in this in a moment.
How common is sleep paralysis? Estimates vary, but it's likely you'll run into sleep paralysis at least once in your life. For those who experience it nightly, it's classed as a sleep disorder.
It's more likely to occur if you're under stress or have disturbed sleep cycles due to shift work, narcolepsy, sleep deprivation, jet lag, and other sleep disorders.
You can also induce sleep paralysis with certain lucid dreaming techniques. But that's a good thing - because with awareness, this state becomes easier to navigate.
If sleep paralysis is just a dream, then why does it feel so real?
Some of the effects ARE real. This state is a merger of waking consciousness and the dream world. It's a bizarre mind trick. Here's what I've found through research and my personal experiences:
This is not a new condition. Sleep paralysis, under various guises, has existed in folklore from many different cultures for centuries - perhaps millennia.
In Japan, they call it "kanashibar". In Newfoundland, it's known as "the old hag" who visits you in the night. In China, they know it as "ghost oppression". Even artists have depicted this ghoulish night-time disorder: see The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli.
It's no surprise that native folklore shapes the nature of sleep paralysis hallucinations.
In the US, it was only after flying saucers were popularized that people reported vivid alien abduction experiences, where aliens paralyzed and probed them in their beds at night.
In Mexico, more than 90% of teenagers know the phrase "a dead body climbed on top of me" to describe the nightmare entity. And in African culture, it's known as "the devil riding your back" where demons have sex with people in their sleep.
This all tells us that sleep paralysis is a common human condition. What's more, the hallucinations are shaped by your expectations.
Now I'm going to show you how to stop sleep paralysis in its tracks - or to evolve it into a lucid dream scenario. It's good to have both of these tricks up your sleeve.
If you're a chronic sufferer of sleep paralysis, then prevention is going to be better than a cure. You're likely already predisposed to sleep paralysis so try to avoid anything which messes with your sleep cycles. We're talking nightshift work, overtiredness, jet lag and extreme sleep deprivation.
It's also really important to avoid stress and anxiety, particularly before sleep. If you're suffering from chronic stress, attend to that and your sleep paralysis could go away on its own.
If you wake up in the night and already in the throes of sleep paralysis, here are some tips to cut it short:
Maintain these goals for the duration of the sleep paralysis and stay on top of any fear.
Sometimes you will find it wears off in a few seconds. Other times it may appear to get the better of you - but stay strong and focus on those tiny movements. You own this.
As soon as your brain receives adequate signals that you are awake, it will shutdown the REM atonia. You will quickly be able to move your whole body again, and the hallucinations will disappear in an instant.
Did you know that lucid dreamers induce sleep paralysis on purpose as a stepping stone to lucid dreams?
Uniquely, this borderland sleep state acts like a gateway to the world of conscious dream control. You're already halfway to a lucid dream because your body is, technically, asleep while your mind is consciously aware. These are also hallmarks of a lucid dream.
The only difference? You lack full immersion into dream imagery. In sleep paralysis, your eyes are open (or part open) and you're "stuck" in your real physical body as opposed to frolicking through a meadow in your limitless dream body.
So the answer is to focus your awareness on re-entering that dream space. On having your brain coordinate movements with a dream body and experiencing that internally generated dream world.
The actually process of transforming sleep paralysis into a lucid dream is simple - but does require some detailed explanation if we're looking at all the possibilities.
Finally, remember that sleep paralysis, though sometimes startling, can't hurt you. It's a vivid experience of the mind and you can put it to good use. I know I do.
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