I think there’s something rather intriguing about sleep. In sleep state, we lose all awareness and control of ourselves. We are at our most vulnerable – if we are threatened in that state, we are naturally disturbed by it.
A plethora of tales involving ghosts and other demons, attacking people in their sleep have been around for … forever. The stories are endless and without boundaries. In my ethnic group, the existence of ndi mmuo (spirits) is generally accepted. In every geographical setting, paranormal tales abound – irrespective of race or culture. Films depict them, books discuss them, friends recount them. I’ve even had an experience, which made me believe in their validity.
On that occasion, I slept over at a friend’s house. I was about 19, at the time. I woke from sleep immobilised, unable to move my body or turn my head. I tried to scream, but no sound came out of my mouth. I felt breathless and it felt as though my chest was held down by the chest. I felt like I was in deep danger. My friend and I prayed fervently about it, when I finally stood up.
Not too long ago, two of friends related similar experiences. Ugo* said that when her cousin stayed over at her house last month, she was attacked by demons in her sleep. So, she is convinced that her cousin is “demonic”, because she had an attack when she visited with Ugo.
Then, another friend, Frank* told me, “I was asleep and this scary woman came into the room and had sex with me. My wife was there and I tried to get her attention. But, I couldn’t speak. When I woke up, my wife said that she didn’t hear or see anything.”
I’d virtually accepted what I’d been told about the paranormal occurences. Then, I stumbled across Sleep Paralysis online. I was fascinated. Even nursing school didn’t teach me that …
Experts opined that sleep occurs in cycles and each cycle is split into two phases – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, and non-REM sleep. The brain is very active in REM sleep, and most dreams occur then. Amazingly, in order to prevent us acting out our dreams, the body is totally paralysed with the exception of the eyes and diaphragm (muscle needed for breathing). We are not usually aware of this state, but if a transitional disruption causes this paralysis to persist into wakefulness, Sleep Paralysis is said to occur. This implies that you are conscious, but paralysed! You cannot move or speak! You feel breathless, because taking deep breaths is restricted! The paralysis is temporary, and can last from a few seconds to several minutes. During such episodes, hallucinations may occur. Some people have reported feeling a frightening presence in the room. Some have reported hearing sounds and voices. Others reported the stimulation of their taste buds. Some have described sexual encounters with phantom beings.
Sleep paralysis is scary. When it happened to me, it affected me for days. The good news is that, it is not a risk to health as a whole. Many people experience sleep paralysis once or twice, in their lifetime. When it happens, more often than that, it is called Isolated Sleep Paralysis. I couldn’t find causes of it, but it seems that age can make you more susceptible to it – teenagers and young adults are mostly affected by sleep paralysis. Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns also presents risks factors.
In addition to being possibly hereditary, it could be a symptom of nacrolepsy (inability to stay awake for long periods). Treatment for sleep paralysis may include: a change in sleep habits, reducing caffeine intake, and ensuring a restful environment. Exercise and giving up smoking can also help. In extreme cases, antidepressants may be prescribed.
I find it interesting that it has been indicated that those who don’t go through sleep paralysis at all, may be aggressive and dangerous in sleep state. They tend to act out their dreams, because their muscles are not paralysed in REM sleep. Some have gone on to murder people without having any recollection of it.
My thoughts …
Yet again, I agree with science. Some may argue that the ‘sleep paralysis’ explanation challenges their cultural and religious beliefs. Fair enough, but I think that the human body is intriguing and will fascinate us forever. It is programmed to allow us function within personal and societal expectations. I welcome scientific explanations to things that I can’t find answers to. It does not change my cultural or religious beliefs. This scientific explanation brings a form of closure to an experience that ironically ‘paralysed’ me for a long time.
Nola Solomon is a Specialist Public Health Nurse, with a background in Paediatrics. She blogs at www.anethnicnurse.com where this was first published, and lives in Manchester (UK) with her five beautiful children.