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This is what it’s really like to have sleep paralysis

It’s exactly as terrifying as it sounds.

The first time I experienced sleep paralysis, I’d woken up to my face pressed into my pillow. As someone who has a habit of sleeping on her stomach, this was a normal occurrence. During the night, when my neck would end up being strained into discomfort, I’d often wake and reposition. 

This time, I couldn’t.

My eyes were open. I could hear the soft hum of the television drifting in from the common room where my sister was undoubtedly working into the night once more. The room was dimly lit by the streetlights glowing outside. And I was paralyzed.

I struggled to move. My body refused to. I tried to yell for help. My mouth refused to. I began to panic, my breathing getting more and more erratic. Part of me wondered if this was the end.

Then, the screaming started. There were howls and shrieks coming from God-knows-where that made my blood run cold. And as my eyes frantically looked around, I spotted a shadowy figure rising from the corner of the room. One more joined. Then, another. The three figures slowly began to creep closer, each step giving more weight to the screams around me. 

I blacked out. 

The next day, I wondered if it was just a vivid nightmare. I turned to Google and was met with pages upon pages of results.

Surprisingly, WebMD didn’t tell me I had cancer – a first, no doubt – but led me towards a helpful article. Sleep paralysis occurs when your mind wakes up before your body. This happens either as you’re falling asleep (hypnagogic) or waking up (hypnopompic). 

As you sleep, your body cycles through 90-minute sessions going from NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) to REM stages. NREM consists of four stages which include the deepest sleep and take up 75 percent of your sleeping time. 

REM, on the other hand, occurs when you dream. Your body relaxes to the point of paralysis to keep you from carrying out any actions as your brain activity picks up during your dreams. Waking up during a REM cycle is when sleep paralysis takes place.

Waking up to realize you can’t move isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Panic sets in. You’re vulnerable and, mind you, still technically dreaming. The panic pushes you into a living nightmare, manifesting IRL. 

Experiences vary though. Since my first time, I’ve fallen into sleep paralysis more than I can count – mostly when I fall asleep on my back – but I rarely experience the same hallucination.

These days, I barely hallucinate.

Others I’ve spoken to speak of hearing their names being whispered by people they know, feeling a crushing weight on their chest, feeling utter despair, sensing an electrical hum underneath their skin – the list goes on. The experience itself is individualistic. 

However, while citing similar physical reactions and feelings is understandable, there are citations of similar hallucinations as well – The Hat Man. I can’t speak for this myself but a dedicated site, The Hatman Project, curates and discusses stories collected worldwide. A documentary called The Nightmare also pays homage to this.

Sleep paralysis has also been credited with explaining away claims of alien abductions and witchcraft.

The first recorded instance of sleep paralysis can be traced back to 1664 when it was described in a Dutch physician’s case histories.

Yet, it still remains somewhat shrouded in mystery as no specific cause has yet been determined. It is, however, harmless.

It could be genetic, it could do with a family history of mental illness but it could also happen to anyone. It could happen when you aren’t getting enough sleep, and it could happen if you get irregular sleep. It is, however, more likely to happen if you sleep on your back (supine) and I can attest to that. 

It’s posited that every person will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime, with many not even recalling it or brushing it away as a one-off weird nightmare. Others, who become unwilling frequents, relay varying accounts. 

There’s no cure.

The most you can do is try to get a good night’s rest – which is important anyway – and if the problem becomes too severe, seek medical advice.

Personally, since becoming aware of the issue seven years ago, I’ve reasoned my way out of sleep paralysis countless times. However, my encounters have become relatively tame over the years.

Was I to proverbially come face-to-face with The Hat Man and cast, logic might not prevail. That being said, I’d rather keep wondering than be put to the test.