Sleep Paralysis: The History and The Mystery
There are bad dreams, then there are nightmares.
Waking up from a dream in which your nanna has grown horns and is poisoning your pikelets, well that can be disconcerting. It takes a while to remember that Gran is safely tucked away in her retirement home, it’s 3 am, and it doesn’t taste like you’ve unwittingly digested any laced baked goods in your sleep. It was just a bad dream. However, being fast asleep, hearing a crashing noise in your room (that’s loud enough to wake you), becoming consciously aware of your surroundings before feeling a presence upon you, perhaps even seeing it from above, but being trapped underneath as it presses down you stopping even the slightest of movements you try to make as you lay unable breathe or to cry out for help, that, is the truly terrifying phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Fear not, however, for there are ways that you can cease waking in fright and learn to take back the night!
Sleep paralysis has been a worldwide phenomenon for thousands of years. Whilst we know its basic medical cause, we don’t know why the same terrifying elements of a sleep paralysis dream are experienced by so many different people in varying cultures. The startling noises, the feeling of a presence in a room, the sensation of being held or tied down, visions of a dark attacker, foul smells and smoke emanating from someone (or something) – all these supernatural connotations accompany the sleep paralysis experience, no matter where it happens in the world.
The idea of a spirit “pressing down” is found in many cultures. The English word “nightmare” was first used to describe not merely bad dreams, but sleep paralysis – the “mare” half of the word comes from the Nordic word “mara” which means “an evil spirit or goblin which rides on people’s chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams”.
The Chinese, Korean (gawi nulim), and Mongolian (kara darahu) words for sleep paralysis literally mean, “being pressed down by a ghost.” In Nigeria, sleep paralysis is believed to be part of a wider phenomenon called ‘ogun oru’, a type of spiritual nocturnal warfare attributed to demonic infiltration of the body and psyche during dreaming. Folk belief passed down from the descendants of African American slaves in Newfoundland, South Carolina and Georgia describes the figure of an old hag who leaves her physical body at night, and sits on the chest of her victim. In Turkey sleep paralysis is called karabasan, and is similar to other stories of demonic visitation during sleep. A supernatural being, commonly known as a djinn, comes to the victim’s room, holds him or her down so they can’t move, and begins to strangle them.
The scariest part of sleep paralysis is how real that strangling sensation feels. This is because the paralysis itself is indeed really happening. The scientific explanation is simple: sleep paralysis occurs because your brain wakes up before your body, or your body goes to sleep before your brain. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which accounts for about 20-25% of your sleep, your brain undergoes a process called REM sleep atonia, telling your muscles to “turn off”. This is a protection mechanism which stops us from physically acting out our dreams. When you wake up feeling like you can’t move, it’s because you can’t.
The aforementioned cultures have offered up three alternative reasons as to why you may be subject to dark visitations. The first is that an enemy has placed a curse on you, an object around you, or your place of residence. The second is that you have opened a door to evil in your life by practicing evil yourself. The third is that you have become a target by interfering with another’s evil intentions and trying to seek the light.
As terrifying as this paralysis is, it is not uncommon. Studies show that 6-30% of the population experience sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. Whilst there is no miracle drug to stop episodes occurring once and for all, there are tips and tricks to deal with paralysis whilst it’s happening, and to prevent it in the future. What works for you will depend on what the source of your paralysis is.
Taking Back the Night – Cures
Your ability to ‘will’ yourself out of an episode will depend largely on the degree to which you are able to control your feelings and thoughts whilst unable to move. In Latvian culture, it is believed the only way to rid yourself of your dream attacker is by wiggling the toes of your left foot. It may sound superstitious, but learning to focus your thoughts on body movement, whether it be wiggling your toes, fingers, tongue, or just moving your eyes may force your body into a fully waking state.
During an episode, some people feel as though they are suffocating, whilst others just experience their muscles not working. If you can, focus on breathing. If you know some controlled breathing techniques in advance it may help you regain control during a sleep paralysis episode.
In fact, preparing in advance can help reduce the occurrence of episodes, especially if you believe the cause of your ailment is purely physical; that your dreams experienced during sleep paralysis are hallucinations, not visitations. Make sure you have a regular sleep schedule (including a sleep diary) and a sleeping environment that is quiet, comfortable, dark and not too hot or cold.
About 60% of sleep paralysis episodes reportedly occur when the sleeper lies on his or her back. In order to break this habit, pin a sock to the back of your nightshirt and insert a tennis ball or two to stop you inadvertently rolling over.
A healthy diet can also help you get your sleep paralysis under control. Nothing is more important than what you put inside your body. Cut out the things that will affect your sleep, such as caffeine, alcohol, and sweets.
If, however, you have tried all these methods, and you are still experiencing the terror of midnight suffocations, you may be inclined to believe that your sleep paralysis is caused by supernatural visitation, and is not merely a hallucination conjured up by your subconscious. In this case, you will want to take a spiritual approach to solving the problem.
The solution will vary depending on which of the aforementioned spiritual causes you believe induces the sleep paralysis, but the two main cures are prayer, and self awareness.
Memorising a specific prayer for protection to repeat before you sleep can be useful. Not only does this type of prayer invite good spiritual forces to surround you, but it reaffirms the fact that the dark is not ultimately in control. Dark spirits feed upon fear and intimidation, so in order to overcome them you must truly believe you, with the backing of a benevolent greater being, are in control. During an attack, many have said that a prayer for deliverance was all that it took to bring them back to reality – when you refuse to acknowledge evil’s power over you, that power ceases to exist. It is also wise to offer a prayer of thanks after an attack – darkness feeds on fear and is repelled by gratitude, so by expressing thankfulness that the ordeal is now over, you can further resist the malevolent nature of the spirit attacking you.
The other thing to pray for is self awareness – look within and ask yourself if there is a reason this is happening to you. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t realise how you have welcomed this entity into your life (perhaps by violence, pride, neglectfulness, jealousy, lust, bitterness, greed or self abuse) you won’t be able to close the door. You may not even have welcomed it at all. By living your life in a loving way, the path you have chosen may be disturbing a spirit which seeks to dominate, deceive and destroy. In Ethiopia, students who quit taking a drug called khat reported experiencing sleep paralysis soon after, including visitations from the spirit of the drug, who was angry they had given up their addiction. In these cases, you have the upper hand and need not be afraid.
Of course, learning not to fear is easier said than done. One of the best ways to release fear is to talk about it. Don’t be ashamed of your sleep paralysis – whether the cause is spiritual or physical, it’s much easier to deal with when you know you’re not the only one. You might be surprised to learn that someone you know has gone through something similar. By bringing your sleep paralysis out of the bedroom and into the light of day, you can stop waking in fright and start taking back the night.
Did your cortisol rise when you read this? Did your dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin begin to flow freely?
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