Sleep Paralysis

by Mike Kaplan

Sleep paralysis is very real, and is often very scary. Sleep paralysis is when while either falling asleep or during sleep, a person wakes up to the point that they are aware, but cannot move their bodies or speak. It is very common for someone who experiences sleep paralysis to recall hearing, feeling, seeing, or encountering, something that isn’t there. Many of the victims of sleep paralysis have no idea what it is or that they experience it. They often explain their symptoms as something supernatural or extraordinary, whether it be aliens, spirits, or ghosts. It is estimated that nearly 8% of people experience sleep paralysis, though many only experience it once. It becomes more prevalent when the victim suffers from other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression, or when they have another sleep-related disorder such a narcolepsy. About 5% of people have regular episodes.

The most obvious symptom of Sleep Paralysis is inability to move while awake. People often imagine hearing sounds that range from voices, to static, to humming, to ancient languages, to roars and whispers. People often experience sensations of being moved, sat on, held down, or floating, and the paralysis usually results in a feeling of fear and panic. People have reported seeing shadows moving around them, voices telling them to do things, and some even believe they were abducted by and had their memory wiped by whatever was haunting them.

Sleep Paralysis is believed to occur when at the end of our REM sleep cycle, we become conscious before the cycle ends. We are awake mentally, but we still have no control of our bodily movements. Our body is essentially still asleep. As we know from class, people will often create mental bridges to help them explain the things they experience in their lives. When someone wakes up, can’t move their body, and see nothing physical holding them down, our brain tries to find an explanation. Often, the most realistic belief we can come up with is that there is something supernatural involved, that is preventing us from doing anything. The person suffering from the paralysis may use cues from their environment to explain the paralysis, and may go their entire lives without realizing they had experienced sleep paralysis. As someone who personally suffers from sleep paralysis, I can tell you that the panic and fear of not being able to move is extremely terrifying. It honestly feels like you may about to die, you don’t know what is happening, and our mind is quick to offer explanations. I once had an episode while on vacation in Mexico, and I explained to myself that a Mexican spirit was angry at me for being on his lands and supporting the resort there. I truly feared he was going to kill me. Now as the years pass and I became aware of what I suffered from, my mind has strayed away from such explanations. But I remember clear as day how logical they seemed at the time, and a spirit is not a far-stretch from an alien or a ghost. I try not to judge anyone who has such an “extraordinary experience”, our minds are very good at playing tricks on us, and as I said before people often do not realize they are suffering from sleep paralysis.

It is my belief that sleep paralysis is a strong explanation for many people who believe they have been abducted or encountered the supernatural. A strong initial belief that a ghost wants you dead will inevitably lead to research on ghosts, and leads down the rabbit-hole to real belief in spirits. If you believe you were abducted by aliens, get on google and find hundreds of other experiences similar to yours, it may drive you to believe in them more, or at least establish a narrative that allows a person to believe that is what must have happened to themselves.

Further social contexts and narratives of spirit encounters or alien abductions also drive belief in an explanation other than sleep paralysis for sleep paralysis. While sleep paralysis is rather unknown, and honestly is rather lacking in its study, we see ghost movies and alien stories all the time. Our culture is obsessed with the supernatural, and sleep paralysis is more likely to be identified as an experience of that supernatural rather than what it actually is. I believe someone who suffers from sleep paralysis; especially when they only experience a few occurrences, are much more likely to hear about ghosts or aliens than they are likely to read a story about Sleep Paralysis.

In summary, although these posts are usually about something that is unreal, supernatural, or otherwise impossible, Sleep Paralysis is very real and it is terrifying or even traumatizing to experience. It is listed in the DSM 5 under parasomnias, and is not a joking matter. It is not uncommon for people who suffer from sleep paralysis to explain their experience in some supernatural forum. We must try to understand that these people have experienced a trauma, and their minds are desperate to explain it. It is way more likely that a person who experienced sleep paralysis only a couple times may come to believe in the supernatural, rather than to find out what sleep paralysis is. This does not make them any less intelligent than us, they simply do not have the same information that we do.

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23 thoughts on “Sleep Paralysis

  1. I had a friend in High school who experienced sleep paralysis and he swore he was possessed. He was one of those people who had regular episodes that drove him crazy, he never got to sleep. He said he would see a black, gargoyle type creature sitting on him and breathing deeply and he would just cry. I can’t imagine being afraid to go to sleep becasue sleep is often how people relax and escape fear in their real life. I have never had sleep paralysis, but I have had dreams where I wake up crying and those are bad enough!

    • This is awful! I hope he sees a doctor, I can’t imagine living like this. Not sleeping out of fear would surely result in even worse day dreams and sleep paralysis, resulting in a horrible cycle or terror. I really hope you friend finds some peace.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post as it gave me an insight on why some people believe in supernatural occurrences happening to them. It makes a lot of sense that under sleep paralysis that people’s minds can form scary images that aren’t really there and with all the stuff in the media about alien abductions or ghost hauntings it isn’t a far reach for the mind to come up with these things since they are so common. It must be really scary to go through something like that especially if you don’t know what it is.

  3. I have had sleep paralysis a handful of times in my life, and each time was more terrifying than the last. During all of mine, a dark, evil figure was somehow involved. It took on a different shape every time, but was still a constant among all of them. You make an interesting point about how this could be a big reason as to why some people think they they were abducted by aliens. I agree with that but have never considered it before!

    • It’s nice to know I am not the only person in class who has experienced some sleep paralysis. If you ever find yourself unable to move while waking, try to kick or bend your feet and toes! This was suggested to me once and has worked every time that I was able to identify that some parts of my body wouldn’t respond; my feet always respond, ending the paralysis!

    • Also, the variety of creativity in the human mind is limitless. Sleep Paralysis may not only explain aliens, but could also explain several ghosts, spirits, demons, or any endless variety of monster (Grace’s friend is haunted by a gargoyle) that have been reported. The combination of most people only experiencing sleep paralysis a few times and not knowing what it is leads to beliefs in all kinds of supernatural things!

      • Mike,
        This is a fantastic point. The minds creativity is limitless, especially while we are in our deepest and most intense sleep cycles (REM). This could explain so many bizarre things, but it also makes sense why people could see it feel so real because that is a characterization of REM sleep dreams compared to NREM. REM dreams are the ones you remember every detail of, and where you couldve swore they were there. It makes sense with some simple manipulation by a third person you could make someone believe anything.

    • Hey Abigail,
      I agree that I like the connection because possible abductions and sleep paralysis. That is a really fascinating point and something that could make total sense and I have never thought of. Do you think because you know more about sleep paralysis now you would be frightened just as much if it happened again?

  4. This was a really interesting read. The process of how it happens and the science of it was cool to understand it. I experienced it vividly two times throughout my life. It was very miserable and I had to consciously try to figure out how to move because it was during it was during a sick time in bed.

  5. I enjoyed your post!
    I liked that you actually explained the science behind it because I have known what sleep paralysis is for a long time but never understood how it happened. Luckily, I have never experienced sleep paralysis thought the thought of it does give me nightmares about it happening to me. The thought of not being able to move it terrifying and I hope to never experience it (it’s like straight out of a horror film). Becuase people have this heightened fear and hallucinate I definitely agree that this could be a cause of people thinking they’ve been abducted by aliens.

  6. I have actually experienced this a few times in my life. It was quite scary because I can remember having a dream where I was trying to move for whatever reason but was not able to. When I fully woke up, I still couldn’t move for a few moments. I was mostly scared because I did not know what was going on, but I can see how others may interpret this as something else such as aliens or some type of possession. It is crazy how our bodies work!

  7. I liked how you included your experience with it too! I always find it so interesting to hear what people believe is causing something that actually can be explained through science, such as sleep paralysis, and how elaborate the theories are. I also wasn’t aware of what exactly it was or how many people actually experience it, so I like how you explained all of that in your post. It sounds so terrifying, I hope I never have to experience it!

  8. I really liked this post because you explained what sleep paralysis is and how it is a very real thing. However, the way people perceive and interpret sleep paralysis into being an extraordinary belief is the problem. People are so quick to think that they are being “possessed” or “haunted” shows how people use the supernatural to explain things rather than just researching the topic. If half of these people just researched sleep paralysis they would have gotten a complete scientific and biological response.

  9. great post! I experience sleep paralysis as well! But i experience it with my dreams. Half of my mind knows im asleep the other half is awake.. kind of. I get trapped in my dreams and I can not get myself out of it. The only thing I can do is wait until I am finally awake before the anxiety goes away. It is the worse thing ever and most people do not experience the dream sleep paralysis but i can best describe it as high anxiety filled and insanity. Its as if i wake up 100 times in my dreams before I actually become awake.

  10. Very well written post, I think that sleep paralysis is a very interesting topic and shows how little we are in control of our mind at times and how we are unable to distinguish real events from dreams. We talked about alien abductions and sleep paralysis a lot in class, and i thought your post really covered the topic in detail.

  11. Hi, Mike! It is an amazing post and I like how you explain the phenomenon of alien abduction. My best friends experienced sleep paralysis. It was pretty horrible because you can move your eyes, you are conscious but cannot move your body. He is afraid that he will never be able to move his body again when it first happens. Without knowing it is motor cortex that is in rest, people may consider it as an extraordinary phenomenon and attributes it to alien abduction. My friend describes that if he is pretty thirsty and hot in his sleep, he will probably have sleep paralysis. He knows it is coming, so he usually wakes himself up before it happens. But if he fails, that is a pretty awful experience.

  12. I’ve had sleep paralysis a few times in my life and it is honestly one of the most scary feelings I think anyone can feel. You are awake but you can’t move it is insane. I liked your post a lot and I agree with what we learned in class about most alien abductions probably involving sleep paralysis I thought that part was really interesting. Thank you for the fun post on a topic it seems that most of the class has felt at one time or another.

  13. This is such a good post! I liked the approach of taking a non-extraordinary belief to explain extraordinary beliefs. I’ve never met someone that has had sleep paralysis but in some of my classes, we have talked about sleep paralysis and it seems like it could be so terrifying, because you can’t move or talk or anything but you are awake and it would make sense for your brain to try to understand what is happening even if it’s in a bizarre way. Also, with it being at the end of REM, a person could definitely still be dreaming but since they are awake would feel like it’s reality.

  14. Mike, I found your topic of your blog post to be really interesting. I liked how you talked about the percentages of people that this happens to and for the various reasons or conditions, it helped put it into perspective. The thought of being awake without the inability to move is a scary thought, especially during moments of being asleep. Have you ever experienced anything like this?

  15. I love the topic of sleep and sleep paralysis, I have learned about it in a few of my neuro courses and basically its when the mind wakes up during REM sleep, which we are paralyzed for due to the intensity of dreams we can have in it that way we will not act out during it. Imagine, you are having a nightmare and you are terrified and want to hit someone, your spouse is next to you and you would have no idea. This is completely realistic but thanks to REM sleep paralyzing us it protects not only us but those around us as well. I definitely have had sleep paralysis before, but to me it is nothing something to be afraid of if you are educated on it.

  16. I think that sleep paralysis is fascinating and something that is popular is pop culture. Some horror films I have seen have played with the idea of sleep paralysis. I have never experienced sleep paralysis, so I always wonder how realistic media depictions are. I think its interesting that when some people are experiencing an episode, they report seeing a demonic figure or something similar. I like your explanation of the brain just wanting an explanation for the paralysis and feel like that really explains why its usually seems to be a demonic figure.

  17. Hello!
    This was a great topic for your blog post! I am a psych major so I have studied and learned about sleep paralysis a few times in my courses. I have never had it occur to me but it sounds like a terrifying experience. It was interesting that you chose to write about this topic after experiencing it yourself first hand. I think from what I have heard and explained about the experiences, it seems it can definitely be confused for a super natural experience. Our minds can really play tricks on us and I find it crazy but also amazing!! This post gave a lot of good information on sleep paralysis and I enjoyed reading!!

  18. In my culture it is also describe as people get attached by the ghosts. I think the reason people believes that is the physical experience for that is so strong and stimulating that people cannot embrace that as a normal phenomenon. Especially in western culture, the freedom is such a important concept.

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