Slaying the night demon

August 2014

By Punya Srivastava

One of the most chilling experiences one can face is to wake up and find yourself paralyzed, says Punya Srivastava. Fortunately, sleep paralysis is momentary, and  there are measures to manage it.

It first happened three years back. One night, I started out of my sleep only to find my body paralysed. I broke into a sweat upon realising that I was unable to even open my eyes or move my limbs. I could feel a heavy load on my chest, and suddenly I heard someone breathe into my face. Pure horror gripped me, and I panicked. I wanted to scream my lungs out but couldn’t. I tried to open my eyes but in vain. Still, even with closed eyes, I could see the entire room before me. I unsuccessfully tried to turn my face sideways. The whole ordeal lasted for around 30 seconds but felt like hours. I was too scared to fall asleep again. That was my first terrifying tryst with sleep paralysis.

sleeping paralysis

Since then, I have had a few more instances of the condition, and I remember each one of them vividly. Once, I felt like someone was strangling me to death while I lay paralysed trying to shout out in vain. Another time, I felt a horror so intense that I could feel the fear tingling in my spine rising upto my chest, as I sensed a sinister shadow by my bed staring down at me. The last time I went through sleep paralysis was three months back when I woke up with a jerk to find myself paralysed as usual, and looking straight into a hooded shadow with raised hands, ready to strike me dead. None of these were nightmares, for I was mentally awake.

No horror movie, no matter how well crafted, has been capable of arousing the intense horror these episodes did. Sleep paralysis is one of the worst experiences to happen to anyone. The feeling of a chest-crushing load restricting your breath as you lie immobile and helpless is nerve-wracking. Add to that the sense of a malevolent presence in your room, and the wonder is that I am still alive to tell the tale! Apart from the problem, its aftermath is also troubling. For a few nights thereafter, the exhaustion would send irresistible waves of sleep crashing through my system, but intense fear would keep me awake.

The most interesting part is that around 50 per cent of humanity experiences this at least once in their lives.

What is it?

Sleep paralysis usually occurs when a person is either going to fall asleep or about to wake up, before which the person enters the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is in REM sleep that our most vivid dreaming takes place. The brain paralyses the body by shutting down the release of certain neurotransmitters to prevent the person from acting out his dreams. Normally, this paralysis ceases before the person becomes consciously awake. However, sometimes the process derails. A person may enter a state of waking consciousness and become aware of his body, while the body itself is still paralysed. And around 90 per cent of the time, this wakeful consciousness is accompanied with frightening and convincing hallucinations about demonic and paranormal presence in the room.

According to Dr Pulkit Sharma, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalytical Therapist at the Imago-Centre for Self, New Delhi, sleep paralysis can last from one minute to an hour or longer in which people experience intense anxiety and see terrifying visions. He categorises the paralysis as following:

• Hypnagogic sleep paralysis in which some people experience paralysis when they are falling off to sleep.

• Hypnopompic sleep paralysis where people experience immobility when they are waking up.

• Isolated sleep paralysis where the episodes are infrequent and last for only a few minutes.

• Recurrent sleep paralysis where the episodes are more frequent and for longer duration, maybe lasting for an hour or more.

The causes of sleep paralysis are not very well known. However, researchers have identified several risk factors including stress, chronic sleep deprivation, erratic sleep schedule, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, use of certain medications and alcohol and drug use. “Still, sleep paralysis is often normal and not pathological,” shares Pulkit. According to a 2011 study, around 40 per cent of those experiencing sleep paralysis suffer from narcolepsy, which is the tendency to go to sleep in relaxing circumstances. Teenagers and young adults are more susceptible as their sleeping schedules tend to be more erratic. In a 2005 paper, it was found that panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) led to a higher incidence of sleep paralysis, suggesting these two to be the main risk factors.

The malevolent presence

The main concern for most sufferers, however, is not the paralysis but the sheer anxiety and fear it generates. American science writer Sam Kean, author of The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons on the history of neuroscience, observes about his own experience. “It’s what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. The worst part is the panic. Being awake, my mind expects my lungs to take full, hearty breaths. But my body, still asleep physiologically, takes mere sips of air. I feel I’m suffocating, bit by bit, and panic begins to smoulder in my chest.”

If this neither-awake-nor-sleeping state of wakeful immobility persists, the mind eventually becomes fully alert, realises something has gone wrong, and activates the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, which amplifies fear. Suddenly, the brain issues a fight-or-flight command which the body is unable to respond to. Panic sets in. This agonising state often generates the sort of hallucinatory experiences that people often mistake for the supernatural.Paranoia takes root in the form of ghosts or an evil presence. Explaining the reason behind this insistence, Pulkit says, “People often see negative things in sleep paralysis because our mind often interprets the whole experience as dreadful. This triggers a negative emotional fantasy sequence, and that is why people see all sorts of bizarre things.” In various cultures, beliefs connected to this phenomenon are accompanied by stories about mystical creatures such as the Mare, the Old Hag, the Incubus, and the Ghost pressing on the bed.

Battling the attack

I have found out from my own experience that although one can’t stop the onset of paralysis, one does have the power to regulate one’s thoughts in order to avert the imminent panic. Deep breathing is the best way of calming yourself, even as you tell yourself that this is a harmless illusion. These days, I use this technique to pull myself out of the experience which gets over in 10-15 seconds.

Pulkit echoes the same thought. “The first step is to relax, not fight the paralysis and accept it by telling yourself that it is not dreadful. This will transform the negative emotion into a positive one and will relax the mind. This state can then take the person into an enriching fantasy or lucid dreaming,” he adds.

There are other coping strategies too which help in lowering the duration and intensity of the experience. Refrain from sleeping on your back as that can collapse the airways in your throat and deprive the lungs of oxygen, allowing only small spurts of oxygen intake. I remember waking up on my back through all the episodes I have had. Another way to break away from the experience is to make small movements like wriggling your toe. This sets your body free from paralysis and gets you back in control of it. However, the most effective way to deal with sleep paralysis is to get a clear understanding of it, and develop your own effective ways of waking yourself. It is also important to be reassured that many other people have it, and that you are not the lone sufferer.

Turning evil into fun

Frankly speaking, there is no sure shot way to put an end to sleep paralysis. It is one of those things that one learns to live with. And if one experiences sleep paralysis on a frequent basis, he might like to make most of the opportunity and enter the fascinating world of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is a state where the person is aware that he is dreaming and actively manoeuvres his dreams in order to see what he wants to.

During sleep paralysis 95 per cent of the stage is set to start with lucid dreaming. Your body is deeply relaxed while the mind is awake. If you can master the initial paranoia, you could move into lucid dreaming without much effort. Lucid dreaming unlocks a whole new world of fascinating scenarios and untouched places. These dreams help you explore your creative pinnacle and work as inspirations in your real world.

So, the next time you find yourself paralyzed in your sleep, say a cheery ‘hi’ to that shadowy figure staring at you, and lose yourself in the fascinating world of lucid dreams. And oh, good night!

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