Sleep paralysis is a natural protection mechanism that prevents you from acting out your dreams. It affects most of your body, with the exception of your eyes (allowing them to demonstrate Rapid Eye Movement), chest (so your lungs can breathe freely) and sometimes minor extremities like toes, fingertips and lips.
Sleep paralysis switches on and off around the sleep-wake border. As a result, sometimes people become aware of the paralysis and are shocked to find they can't move. This can be scary, inducing nightmarish hallucinations (but not always), and when it happens frequently it is classed as a sleep disorder.
In fact, the paralysis mechanism is a combination of mind-body tricks responsible for countless reports throughout history of alien abductions, ghostly visitations, and other terrifying night-time hallucinations.
The experience can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. It doesn't always invoke visions of evil entities, but this is a common feature when you're afraid. Sufferers have seen witches, ghosts, shadow people, aliens, angels, fairies and even cartoon characters. It can happen every night or it may never happen to you at all.
So what causes this bizarre chain of events?
The basic cause of this medical condition is REM atonia, a natural process which happens to everyone, every night. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement (the phase of sleep most often connected with dreaming) and atonia means lack of muscle tension.
REM atonia is an essential sleep mechanism. As you fall asleep, it cuts off the electrical signals between your muscles and your brain so that you can sleep peacefully each night. In short, it stops you from acting out your dreams.
The experience of sleep paralysis occurs when your mind (in part) wakes up, but your body remains asleep. Physically asleep, you remain paralyzed. But mentally conscious, you may start to panic and the half-dreaming mind conjures up nightmarish images to "explain" what is happening, often based on cultural beliefs.
Sleep paralysis is common: half of the world's population may experience this condition at least once in their lives. The condition is more likely to arise if you are under stress and/or have disturbed sleep cycles due to shift work, narcolepsy, sleep deprivation, jet lag, and other sleep disorders. You're also more likely to encounter sleep paralysis if you practice certain lucid dreaming techniques. But that's a good thing - because under the right control, it is the gateway to lucid dreams and OBEs.
If sleep paralysis is just a dream, then why does it feel so real?
Some of the effects ARE real. This state is a very clever merger of waking consciousness with the dream world. It's a bizarre mind trick.
For instance, footsteps thumping towards the bed are often a distortion of the sound of your own heartbeat, pounding in your chest due to all the adrenaline. Hearing your assailant breathing unnaturally is common too - thought to be the sound of your own gasps for breath in this panicked state.
The feeling of your body being paralyzed is real, too. Releasing yourself from the grip of the paralysis is one way to end this terrifying situation (see below).
However, the perceived difficulty to breathe properly is what causes many people to imagine an entity trying to harm them (by stopping them breathing or crushing their chest). It's important to remember here that the effect is psychosomatic.
Thankfully, the evil entities are not real. But for chronic sufferers, this is not always easy to accept. People write to me describing their episodes, believing they have genuinely encountered beings from another realm. Even after learning about the true nature of sleep paralysis and the gateway to lucid dreams, some people remain convinced that this state is really a gateway to hellish dimensions.
This is not a new condition. Sleep paralysis 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 America, it was only after flying saucers were popularized that people reported vivid alien abduction experiences, where aliens paralyzed and probed them in their bed 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, and the hallucinations can be shaped and molded based on your expectations.
Researchers are learning more and more about this age-old condition. Some people have a greater predisposition to sleep disorders, and these are the ones that should avoid anything which messes with their sleep cycles, including night shift work, overtiredness, jet lag and sleep deprivation.
If you have been experiencing sleep paralysis recently, there is good news: in the majority of cases, it goes away on its own. Only a tiny fraction of the population experiences chronic episodes. So try to isolate the factors that may have caused this recent bout and stop disturbing your sleep cycles.
During an episode, there are things you can do to stop sleep paralysis in its tracks. It depends on the severity of your condition but most people find they can focus on a specific task - like breaking the paralysis - to help overcome the fear.
Here's how to stop sleep paralysis in simple steps:
Maintain these goals for the duration of the sleep paralysis. 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. As soon as your brain receives adequate signals that you are awake, it will shut down the REM atonia, you will be able to move your whole body again, and the hallucinations will disappear.
If you have experienced sleep paralysis in the past then you are likely predisposed to experiencing it again in the future. But this is not something to fret about. Did you know that thousands of people use it as a stepping stone to having lucid dreams? Uniquely, this half-awake half-asleep state acts like a gateway to the world of conscious dream control.
Sleep paralysis forms a stepping stone in several techniques, such as Wake Induced Lucid Dreams and The Out of Body Exit. Read my tutorials to make the most of sleep paralysis and turn it into an opportunity to become lucid. If you want to lucid dream but are too scared to enter sleep paralysis, read this article.
If you are a chronic sufferer of SP, why not learn how to turn your paralysis nightmares into lucid dreams with Ryan Hurd's Sleep Paralysis Kit. Over the years Ryan has developed his own simple ways to transform the fearsome imagery into positive visionary experiences and lucid dreams. A groundbreaking book.