The Terrifing Nightmare: Sleep Paralysis

“It usually feels like someone is sitting on my chest, choking me, and I see staring faces right above mine, laughing or screaming gibberish”

Sleep paralysis is the temporary inability to move, react or speak upon sleeping or awakening. It is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterised by the inability to move a muscle. In this state, terrifying hallucinations are experienced to which reaction or response feels restricted due to the paralysis. These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one's chest and difficulty breathing. Another common hallucination type involves intruders that maybe human or supernatural being entering one's room or lurking outside one's window, accompanied by a feeling of dread.

“There was something at the end of my bed, watching me. It felt like I was being dragged towards them. I remember trying to scream but no noise was coming out. I had to slowly fight to get control of my body. It was the scariest experience of my life”

During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep the brain has vivid dreams, while the muscles of the body are essentially turned off. While sleeping, the muscles are unable to move so that the person won't be able to act out dreams with their body. Sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up before REM is finished. The person will be conscious, but the body's ability to move hasn't been turned back on yet. 

Several things can bring on episodes of sleep paralysis. For example, sleep deprivation, some medications and some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea (a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep) are triggers. Also, sleep paralysis is commonly seen in patients with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder involving the loss of the brain's ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles.

Other causes of sleep paralysis is sleep deprivation and irregular sleeping patterns. This is phenomenon is common among teenagers and young adults.

“I usually see someone coming to my room with a crazy grin staring at me. I try to scream but I can’t. They lean in and start suffocating me. It’s a sense of overwhelming helplessness. The whole time I’m just repeating to myself ‘wake up, wake up, wake up!’”


Becoming mentally aware before the body "wakes up" from its paralyzed state can be a terrifying experience, as people realize they can't move or speak. Frequently, these episodes are accompanied by hallucinations and the sensation of breathlessness. Such hallucinations likely gave rise to the myths of the incubus and the succubus, demons that pin people down in their sleep and sometimes have sex with them.

Sometimes patience dealing with sleep paralysis feel like they woke up dead because you that your mind is awake and your body is not. It is more complicated than a nightmare. You mind wakes up and eyes start opening. With an active mind and no ability to move the patient goes through heavy hallucinations. The feeling of someone’s presence or feeling like the chest is being crushed, the supernatural experiences feels more real than ever. Some patients report that they can wiggle their toes, fingers, or facial muscles, which helps them wake up the rest of their body. But apparently everybody tries something different, but you can’t fool Mother Nature, there’s no way to pull yourself out of it. You just have to wait it out.

“The worst was seeing a dog sitting on one of my arms growling at me and a girl whose face was covered with her hair sitting on my other arm. I only woke up when she lay backwards and I felt her hair on my face.”

Accounts of sleep paralysis can be found in Persian medical texts dating back to the 10th century. The first clinical observation was made by a Dutch physician in 1664 who diagnosed a 50-year-old woman with “Night-Mare.” It was believed to be caused by demons or spiritual possession until the 19th century, when it was termed “sleep palsy” and eventually “sleep paralysis” in medical texts. Stress, depression, certain prescription medications, and, more recently, an inherited gene have all been linked to sleep paralysis. But while research shows associations, there is no clear cause of sleep paralysis. We do know that sleep paralysis can either occur on its own as an isolated incident, or it can be a symptom of other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy. And there’s no explanation for why it might happen every other day or just every once in a while.

- Vrishti Nadkarni