Sleep Paralysis: Science, History and How I Learned to Make Sleep Paralysis Feel Less Freaky

Earlier this week, I guest-hosted a Halloween-themed Nerd Nite here in DC. I’m not big on the supernatural or spiritual, but I had some thoughts to share about sleep paralysis, a phenomenon I started experiencing – and was lucky enough to learn about – at a pretty young age.

What the heck is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can occur for a variety of reasons. I think mine is related to my sleep apnea. Occasionally, while I’m sleeping, I’ll shift around in such a way that my airway gets cut off. This results in snoring and a bunch of loud snoring-like sounds. It also results in my body waking me up so I can start breathing again.

Obstructive-Sleep-Apnea

If my body wakes me up during so-called “REM” sleep, that can result in a sleep paralysis episode. During REM sleep, our bodies shut down our muscles. When we experience sleep paralysis, we are conscious or semi-conscious while our muscles are shut down. We can’t move. And often, we can’t breathe either.

My sleep paralysis

I first experienced this around 11 or 12. I remember waking up, seeing my bedroom and not being able to move a muscle. When I tried to move, it felt like I was caught in molasses. I couldn’t breathe. As I ran out of air, my body finally snapped awake and I could breathe again. I remember trying to call out for my mother during an episode, too, and all that came out was a weak groan.

I’m lucky. My sleep paralysis is pretty mild and at the time, I just dismissed these episodes as bad dreams. A few years later, I learned what was actually happening to me when I picked up a copy of The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, which remains my favorite book. In his guide to science-based skepticism, Sagan touches on how sleep paralysis can result in people seeing shadowy figures in the room with them and other dream-like hallucinations. Indeed, some people’s personal recollections of sleep paralysis sound quite terrifying.

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare probably depicts sleep paralysis. The imp is sitting on the woman's chest restricting her breathing and the shadowy figure in the background is depicted here as a freaky, googly-eyed horse. Source: Wartburg.edu via Wikipedia.
Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare probably depicts sleep paralysis. The imp is sitting on the woman’s chest restricting her breathing and the shadowy figure in the background is depicted here as a freaky, googly-eyed horse. Source: Wartburg.edu via Wikipedia.

Sleep paralysis in folklore and history

Sagan and other skeptical thinkers, including Susan Blackmore, have detailed how sleep paralysis crops up in folklore all around the world. There’s the “Old Hag” of Newfoundland, who sits on your chest, there are demons and incubi, jinns, and other supernatural figures, including ones that tie you down with iron chains.

Sleep paralysis also crops up in the Salem Witch Trials. According to Cotton Mather’s second-hand accounts, in 1692:

Bernard Peach, gave ‘evidence’, testifying that “he heard a scrabbling at the window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of this deponent’s feet, and drawing his body up into an heap, she lay upon him near two hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir.” When the paralysis began to wear off he bit Martin’s fingers and she “went from the chamber, down the stairs, out at the door.”

That certainly sounds like sleep paralysis. And it’s easy to imagine someone really believing that Susanna Martin did this to him. It’s a scary experience and if you’re living in colonial society during a witch craze, that may seem like a totally plausible explanation.

Shadowy alien figures looming over a paralyzed dreamer? Screengrab from "Unsealed Alien Files," ably made fun of by BJ White at Adventures in Poor Taste.
Shadowy alien figures looming over a paralyzed dreamer? Screengrab from “Unsealed Alien Files,” ably made fun of by BJ White at Adventures in Poor Taste.

Similarly, Susan Blackmore argues that sleep-paralysis-like symptoms crop up in modern-day alien abduction stories. Indeed, she writes, one study found that nighttime abduction stories were more likely to include paralysis than daytime ones.

Snapping out of it and not getting freaked out

Speaking for myself, learning more about sleep paralysis made these experiences so much less distressing or freaky. I remember having a few episodes – again, as a kid – and just concentrating on what it felt like to very slowly move my fingers or to concentrate on how much breath I had left as I counted down to snapping awake. This was by no means pleasant, of course, but it became more of an interesting experience than a scary one.

I was also interested to learn that in Latvian folklore, sleep paralysis sufferers are similarly advised to wiggle their toes to ward off the supernatural forces that are pestering them.

Still, this can be scary stuff

A new documentary is making the rounds in the United Kingdom called The Nightmare, which focuses on sleep paralysis and folks who have suffered mightily from it. Their experiences really do sound terrible and the psychological distress people can experience as a result of sleep paralysis is quite real.

Indeed, some doctors think that Hmong people who came to the United States as refugees from Laos during the Vietnam War suffered mightily from sleep paralysis. According to Alexis Madrigal, writing in The Atlantic, the Hmong believed that properly honoring one’s ancestors could ward off the supernatural forces that caused sleep paralysis. But after being displaced, many felt they were unable to do so. Shockingly, more than 100 otherwise healthy Hmong men died in their sleep following their displacement from Laos, perhaps as a result, Madrigal writes, of genetic heart problems combined with feeling helplessly attacked by supernatural forces during the night.