Waking Up In The Middle Of The Night And Can't Move: Explained Part 1
Aug 06, 2022
(Photo by Zachary DeBottis)
Sleep paralysis may be the closest thing to a supernatural event that many of us will ever experience. The specifics of the hallucinations can be influenced by religious and cultural beliefs. This is how I first heard about it.
Many of us are unaware of what this phenomenon can look, feel and sound like. If it were to happen to you, then you might really freak out and come to some frightening conclusions.
What it looked like for me
I wanted to write about this because I've had personal experience with sleep paralysis. At two separate time periods actually. Both during points of my adult life where I was dealing with some anxiety and depression issues.
The first few times that it occurred, I was in my early 30s and I had no idea what was happening or why. It was terrifying. At the time I was between residences and staying in a family member's partially finished basement. I would occasionally wake up in the middle of the night, feeling as if there were another presence in the room.
I was unable to move any part of my body except for my eyes. Sometimes, a floating "ghost head" would appear hovering over me, angrily yelling things that I was unable to recall the next day. There were strange buzzing and zapping sounds that were so loud. They should have woken everyone in the house, but somehow they didn't.
Every time this happened to me, I would wake up in the middle of the night because sleeping on my side had caused my arm to fall asleep. As I would try to fall back asleep, I would lay on my back. Mostly because my arm was numb, though I cannot normally sleep on my back.
So, there I would be at 3 in the morning, wide awake and trying to sleep on my back. And, all of a sudden I would be attacked by "demons." I had just created the perfect recipe for inducing sleep paralysis. Of course I had no idea at the time.
The next few incidents were a couple of years later after I had learned about sleep paralysis and its effects. Knowing what they were made them significantly less disturbing.
Identifying the symptoms and common fears
I learned that I had experienced textbook symptoms. Zapping, static hissing and humming sounds are common. Voices that can range from faint whispers to cacophonous roaring. Inability to move combined with pressure or tightness in your chest. And, worst of all, it is extremely common to sense or even see other presences nearby.
The entities that may be experienced can vary wildly. Demons, witches, voids, and alien figures are generally how they are described. Incubus and Succubus types may be associated with visions of sexual activity. It can feel like you're hallucinating, going crazy, or any number of possibilities.
Some cultures have strong fear structures or mythological belief systems surrounding sleep paralysis. In some of these cultures up to 50% of sufferers believe that the incidents can result in death. It can be very scary when it happens. But there have never been any documented cases of someone dying from sleep paralysis.
How common is it?
There are statistics about how prevalent sleep paralysis can be. But they are really only a reflection of reported cases. For instance, I have experienced it but I wasn't a patient of any professional that would record that information. As a result, my occurrences were not counted.
What the statistics do say is that about 8% of the general public experience at least one episode in their lifetime. Again, these are reported cases. There is a high likelihood that many more people could be having these "waking nightmares." They may not tell anyone about them for fear of sounding like lunatics.
That's the point of this article. More people should know about sleep paralysis and what it is like. People shouldn't feel alienated, or even worse, manipulated by some supernatural force. Nobody needs that in their lives.
How, how often, and why does this happen?
It appears that sleep paralysis is caused by a sort of "perfect storm" of sleep-related factors. They usually occur on the way into the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep. This is the stage that we commonly associate with dreaming.
SOREM, or Sleep Onset REM, occurs in the first 15 minutes of sleep and has also been identified as a precursor. This stage however, is almost exclusively associated with people who are severely sleep deprived. Like those who suffer from narcolepsy. Somehow the transition from wakefulness to the REM state can get blended together. Some characteristics of both are maintained resulting in a semi-conscious state.
Your brain-stem is preventing your ability to move muscles and restricting your breathing. While REM can create dream-like experiences. Sleeping on your back, what is referred to as the "supine" position, also seems to be a relevant factor.
A group of scientists were able to actually cause test subjects to have a sleep paralysis experience. They let them fall asleep, and then woke them up and kept them awake for an hour before allowing them to go back to sleep.
Waking people up like this created the SOREM stage in 72% of subjects. This allowed for REM much closer to the wakefulness stage. Overall, 6 out of 64 patients in the study experienced sleep paralysis as a result.
To be continued…
Understanding how sleep paralysis is caused can help us prevent it. In Sleep Paralysis: Knowledge is Power, I will discuss some possible alleviations. Most important among them is healthy sleep practices. Work with your Circadian clock and control environmental factors as much as you can. This can result in a consistent sleep schedule.