By Emily Johnson
It’s 3 a.m. You suddenly snap awake, you hear rushing wind and see a dark cloud of smoke swirling around you. You can’t move anything other than your eyes; as you struggle to look around you, you notice you’re surrounded by tall, faceless figures. It feels like hours are passing as the looming figures slowly close in on you.
Then in a blink, it’s over.
You can move again; the rushing sound is gone; you’re alone, disoriented, and wondering what happened. You just experienced sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where you consciously wake-up but physically do not, leaving you frozen and, potentially, hallucinating.
To fully understand sleep paralysis, we need to understand the sleep cycle. There are four stages of sleep: N1, N2, N3, and REM sleep. The N1 stage is short, and something anyone who’s been in a hot classroom after a sleepless night studying will be familiar with; it’s your “dozing” phase, where you’re conscious that you’re falling asleep. N2 is your “passed out” phase, where your body starts relaxing your muscles and slows your breathing. N3 is like a more advanced N2, where you’re going into deeper sleep preparing for the REM stage.
REM sleep is considered the most important phase of the sleep cycle, it’s when dreams occur and, according to experts, “essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning and creativity” (Foley, 2020). During this phase, the body also experiences atonia, paralysis of the muscles with the exception of eyes and breathing. Atonia occurs to prevent you from acting out your dreams.
Normally, atonia ends as soon as you wake up and you’re never aware of the temporary paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when REM is interrupted and you wake before atonia ends, leaving you paralyzed but conscious, with fresh, dream imagery swirling around your thoughts.
The recent dreams along with the sudden realization that one is paralyzed often sends an individual into a panic mode and can cause hallucinations. The “opposite” of sleep paralysis, and more commonly known condition, is sleepwalking, which is when the body does not experience atonia and one is able to move around while asleep.
The causes of sleep paralysis aren’t fully understood but are often tied to sleep disorders or poor sleeping habits. Individuals with conditions such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy were found more likely to experience sleep paralysis. No genetic predisposition to sleep paralysis on its own has been found and it is generally viewed as a symptom rather than a condition. Sleep paralysis is not necessarily something that will be recurring (so if you’re unfortunate enough to experience it, you may not have to go through it multiple times).
At the top of this article, I gave a recounting of a personal sleep paralysis experience, although it should be noted that it was in no way unique to me. Hallucinations caused by sleep paralysis, interestingly, are heavily affected by an individual’s culture. In western cultures, where Judeo-Christian beliefs and teachings are common, sleep paralysis can often manifest as a “possession”, with individuals saying they felt heavy pressure on the chest and the sensation of something “entering” them through the lungs. For secular sleep paralysis suffers, the “man in black” and other, more alien-themed hallucinations may occur. Asian cultures tend to experience hallucinations revolving around ghostly hauntings, with vengeful spirits, often manifesting as elderly women known as the “night hag”, trying to suffocate or bind the individual in their sleep.
Healthy sleeping habits – going to bed at a consistent time, avoiding caffeine late in the day, and providing a distraction-free “sleep zone” for example — are the easiest ways to avoid sleep paralysis and ensure you wake up feeling rested each day. It should be noted, though, that the night hag could pay anyone a visit, even healthy sleepers. If you should wake one night and find yourself being “possessed”, remember, it was only a nightmare; just one you happened to be awake for.