As your eyes adjust, you suddenly notice there are “intruders” in your room. You see the silhouette of a hooded man whispering at your door, or a decrepit old woman ambling up to your bed, hands outstretched as if to strangle you. As she gets closer and closer, all you can hope is that this is some sort of hyper-realistic nightmare.
Welcome to the terrifying world of sleep paralysis - whe-re nightmares and reality collide.
WHAT IS SLEEP PARALYSIS?
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which a person is almost entirely immobile as their body is moving into its waking state. Effectively, the brain wakes up while the body is still asleep.
Many describe it as a feeling of “waking up dead”.
While visions of ominous shadow men and old witches may sound like something out of an 80s horror film, it’s a scary reality for chronic sufferers of sleep paralysis, who say they can often see, hear or simply ‘sense’ an evil presence in the room.
Experts claim everybody will experience it at least once in their lives.
Sufferers can often see ‘shadow men’ entering their rooms. Source: The Nightmare, 2015Source:Supplied
Sydneysider Naaz Hussain, 24, says she gets sleep paralysis roughly once a week, but it can happen several times a night during high-stress periods.
“I’ll wake up and see an axe murderer bursting through my door,” she told news.com.au. “Or I’ll be lying on my back and see giant spiders crawling all over me.”
She said she also sees shadow figures standing above her bed, or in the corner of her room, moving around or just watching her.
“It’s not just a nightmare. You’re actually awake, seeing this happen to you. And you can’t move at all, so you’re sort of just watching it helplessly, like you’re stuck in a horror movie. That’s what makes it so scary.”
When Naaz first experienced sleep paralysis, she had no idea what was happening to her. It wasn’t until she investigated online – whe-re she found others sharing similar experiences – that she could begin to accept and move past it.
Naaz, 24, says she can see axe murderers and giant insects when she wakes up.Source:Facebook
These days, Reddit threads, Facebook groups and Twitter conversations are all over the web for people to share their terrifying stories.
Some of these users shared their disturbing experiences with news.com.au.
C-hary Gauani, f-rom Isabela in the Philippines, has experienced ongoing sleep paralysis for four years, but she told news.com.au her worst experience took place just a week ago.
“It felt like I was going to be raped,” she said. “I felt something on top of my body - something was pushing itself on my body.
“I heard a heavy breathing behind my back and felt like someone was hugging me f-rom behind.”
One sufferer said she once woke up to see “the grim reaper sucking (her) soul”, which she likened to a Dementor f-rom Harry Potter.
“There was this huge black thing hovering above me,” she told news.com.au. “I was terrified, and I saw my sister next to me and I wanted to scream for help but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move an inch. I really thought the grim reaper was coming to take my soul.
“At some point I realised that the more I fought it, the worse it got.”
Some sufferers see ‘Dementor’-like demons in their bedrooms.Source:News Limited
Another respondent said the hallucinations were always auditory. “I didn’t actually see anything, but could clearly hear the voices of men standing next to my bed, saying they were going to kill me and there was nothing I could do.
“I kept trying to shout out, but I couldn’t move.”
For others, the experience can be more personal.
One woman told news.com.au her experiences often involve seeing an 8-year-old girl. She explained that she had an abortion eight years prior, at the age of 18, and she believes it is a vision of her little girl.
WHAT CAUSES SLEEP PARALYSIS?
Humans have spent centuries trying to explain the feelings they get, with different cultures having their own unique take.
UFO sightings, for example, have in later years been disproven by the conclusion that the “abductee” had likely just had a sleep paralysis episode.
Several European countries tell the folk story of the ‘mare’ – a tiny, evil goblin that strangles you in your sleep.
Meanwhile in Turkey and Pakistan, the hallucinations are known as the jinn, an evil spirit that can only be banished by reciting verses f-rom the Koran.
In Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, it is seen as a form of demonic possession.
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781), is thought to be a classic depiction of sleep paralysis.Source:Supplied
But while these visualisations may seem like a sinister case of the supernatural, they may just be a matter of your mind playing tricks on you.
Dr. Dev Banerjee, a sleep physician at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, has dealt with many patients who reported experiencing sleep paralysis. He told news.com.au it occurs once you’ve fallen into REM sleep, which is when your most vivid dreams take place.
“It happens when you go into deep-dream sleep - that’s whe-re you have your imagery,” he said. “During REM sleep our muscle tone becomes greatly reduced as an intrinsic way of making us not act out in your dreams.
“REM sleep involves imagery visualisation, and that’s why some people hallucinate. It’s this feeling of being really awake in this weird dream.”
He said sleep paralysis tends to occur when the body encounters difficulty transitioning f-rom REM sleep to waking, although it’s still not known why some people struggle to do this. Therefore, one isn’t technically fully asleep or fully awake when it occurs – rather, they’re in a strange world of ‘limbo’.
Dr. Banerjee says it’s more common in young adults, but stressed it is not a neurological disorder.
He also said you’re more likely to get it if you sleep on your back, as people who sleep in this position are more likely to snore, which can induce a feeling of breathlessness. This could explain why so many people appear to see demons pressing down on their chests or choking them, as if to obstruct their airways.
Sleeping on your back can make sleep paralysis worse.Source:News Limited
Religion has often been cited as a reference point, with some sufferers believing evil spirits may genuinely be causing the disturbance.
Stacey De Silva, a fitness trainer f-rom Queensland, told news.com.au she has experienced sleep paralysis since she was a little girl, and has experienced “being held down tightly” with a “high-pitched ringing” in her ears, getting louder and louder.
She attributed getting over it to her religious faith, saying after her last episode, she started reading the Bible and going to church. She has not had an episode since.
But Dr. Banerjee dismisses this, saying it’s simply the mind’s natural way of reacting to a lack of sleep.
“The main thing is to avoid sleep deprivation, or an erratic sleep schedule,” he said. “Some patients do get it entwined with another sleep condition, called narcolepsy, but for most people it’s just an isolated incident.”
The good news, he says, is that sleep paralysis is completely harmless. While the experience may cause anxiety in sufferers, it has no lasting physical or mental effects. Ultimately the key is just to consistently ensure you get enough sleep.
So with that in mind, you might want to reconsider cutting your sleep time in half and substituting it with coffee. Not getting a good seven or eight hours per night could have scary consequences.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING YOUR SLEEP QUALITY
• Stick to a sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, and get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
• Avoid excess caffeine, alcohol and other chemicals that interfere with sleep.
• Don’t nap after 5pm. Late-day naps decrease sleep drive and promote insomnia.
• Avoid eating heavy meals late at night. Try to finish dinner several hours before bedtime.
• Train earlier. Exercise is an important tool in improving your sleep quality, but working out at night could disrupt your sleep schedule.
• Keep your room free f-rom any light, and minimise disruptions. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades or ear plugs.
• Practise a nightly relaxing bedtime ritual, like reading, drinking a cup or herbal tea or listening to soft music. Avoid using electronic devices at least half an hour before bed.
• Get some sunlight first thing in the morning. Natural light can help you reset your body clock and ease into sleep earlier.