Although I remember a lot of specific instances of sleep paralysis going back to my early teens, I can’t remember exactly the first time that it happened. I wake up in the middle of the night still in my bed suddenly aware of some shadowy malevolent presence coming towards me, normally from the door to the bedroom. It’s not a full wake, more like a fog, and I can’t move or speak.
This malevolent presence moves towards me. Out of fear, I’m able to either force my body to shake myself fully awake or I scream out loud which yanks my mind out of the fog. At this point everything is back to normal, I’m awake, heart pounding.
I go through this usually once every few months, but every now and then I’ll have segments of time where it happens multiple times a week or even on the same night. I’ve even had it happen during daytime naps.
Not a Nightmare
For years I thought I was just the victim of some super scary nightmares. The Intruder dream is one of the most commonly experienced of all nightmares. The problem is that it’s not really a dream, I’m mostly awake when it happens.
I didn’t learn what sleep paralysis was until I was in my late 20’s so I didn’t really have any other way to describe what I was experiencing.
I’ve always been a big fan of UFO shows. One night I was watching a show about alien abduction (I don’t remember which show) and they talked about the possibility that abductees were actually experiencing something called ‘sleep paralysis’. It was the very first time I’d heard the term.
At that point, the show turned to a description of what sleep paralysis was. I was intrigued as they talked about the shadowy figures, the inability to move, and the waking fog. They were talking about the very thing I’d been experiencing since I was a teenager.
I finally had a definite diagnosis and more importantly, I wasn’t alone: about 40% of people have sleep paralysis at least once during the course of their lives.
Sleep Paralysis: Different Cultures, Different Names, Different Interpretations
In Japan, they call it kanashibari and it’s well-studied there. As a result, people who suffer from the condition are likely to identify it for what it really is.
In other cultures where sleep paralysis is relatively unknown or doesn’t have a name, people tend to make up something to identify their experience. For people in the US, it’s possible that this is part of the alien abduction story.
In Newfoundland, where the local culture includes stories of witches, they call it ‘old hag’. Sleep paralysis takes the form of a witch that sits upon the victim’s chest clutching at their throat.
While Europeans tend to interpret sleep paralysis as an attack from witches or demons, those in China associate it as an attack by a ghost and subsequently call it ‘gui ya’ – ghost pressure. Examples like this are found all over the world.
People will draw on the most plausible account in their repertoire to explain their experience. Trolls or witches no longer constitute plausible interpretations of these hallucinations. The notion of aliens from outer space is more contemporary and somewhat more plausible to the modern mind. So a flight on a broomstick is replaced by a teleportation to a waiting spaceship. ~Dr. Al Cheyne: University of Waterloo professor of psychology
What To Do if You Suffer From Sleep Paralysis?
Establishing the fact that I wasn’t alone was a big deal for me. I now know that sleep paralysis is a relatively normal part of the human experience. But the question remains: how to cope with it? For me, I’ve learned that I’m more likely to experience sleep paralysis (and nightmares in general) when I sleep on my back. Easy enough, for the most part, I can avoid that.
I’ve also learned that applying some general feng shui concepts to my bedroom seems to help – especially the part about having your bed as far from the door as possible with your feet towards the entry.
I’ve also found that ensuring that closet doors are closed before I go to bed seems to help. I’m more likely to suffer from an episode if my bedroom is generally messy. One of the rules of feng shui is having a general organization and neatness around you to help relax the mind.
I’ve also learned over the years, how to force myself awake by focusing on moving my fingers or hands. Once you begin to move part of your body, the brain begins to move out of the foggy state that facilitates sleep paralysis.
In my case, moving one part of the body can sometimes cause my entire body to shake for a few seconds as I wake fully up. It probably resembles a seizure and I’m sure it scared the crap out of my future wife when she first witnessed it. You can find many other methods of waking yourself from sleep paralysis online.
There was also a time in my life when I adopted a biphasic sleep pattern for about 6 months. During that time, I didn’t have a single episode of sleep paralysis.
Lucid Dreamers & Sleep Paralysis
I lucked out in life being that I’m a lucid dreamer. In more than half the dreams I have, I am consciously aware that I am dreaming. This ability steals the fear away from most nightmares and sometimes gives me control over my dreams.
During sleep paralysis, the entire event happens so quickly that there’s usually not enough time for me to realize what’s going on and take control. There have been a few exceptions, however…
I had an almost comical experience on one of those rare evenings where sleep paralysis struck twice in the same night. After having already dealt with a super scary event that night, I was aware immediately of what was happening the 2nd time around.
Although the fear was still there, the lucid knowledge that it wasn’t real made it less traumatizing. I was laying on my stomach when the evil shadow came lurking into the room. Knowing that it could not really hurt me, I decided not to force myself awake right away and just see what it would actually do.
When the shadow came right over me, it took the shape of a 2′ tall gingerbread man and began hopping around on my back. It was still creepy as hell. The gingerbread man shape was still a completely faceless shadow intent on hurting me. Without the power of lucid dreaming, however, this could have been another terrifying night.
What are your experiences with sleep paralysis? What are your techniques for coping? Let us know in the comments.
Sharif Jameel is a business owner, IT professional, runner, & musician. His professional certifications include CASP, Sec+, Net+, MCSA, & ITIL and others. He's also the guitar player for the Baltimore-based cover band, Liquifaction.