I awoke motionless, my body pinned to the bed by some inexplicable force. All the muscles in my body felt taut and no amount of will-power could move my arms, legs, neck, not even my smallest finger. I experienced an intense fear and anxiety wash over my body as I tried to shake myself awake. The bed rocked in tandem with the shaking sensation I felt in my body; shaking as though it were convulsing. After what felt like days pass I was able to force my eyes open as my body continued to lay perfectly still in the bed. I stared into the darkness that worked tirelessly to engulf me, and right before my eyes stood a shadowed figure— menacing, looming, insidious. My chest tightened and fear continued to paralyze my body. Unable to move, unable to speak, I stared into the darkness wondering where this eldritch horror had come from. Within seconds it was gone, my muscles slackened and I was able to speak. Unable to return to sleep I lay staring at the ceiling questioning the events that transpired.

I recognize how close within the realm of possibility it was that I was experiencing a hallucination. I am otherwise asymptomatic and have never been formally diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoia, or as experiencing delusional thinking or hallucinations. The question then remains, what did I experience? Is it at all possible that lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis are closely related phenomena? Can we suggest that, in a way, my dream image projected itself into waking life as I struggled to release myself from the grips of sleep paralysis? Was it a sort of residue from my sleeping state presented in my waking state. This also begs the question of what state of consciousness we are experiencing while we dream lucidly, and how different it is from our conscious state in comparison to non-lucid dreaming. Are we still experiencing yet another state of consciousness while waking from sleep paralysis, or is this merely another corner of our vast conscious experience​?

This is not the first time this sort of lucid projection has happened to me, and I have heard similar reports from others. Jorge Conesa (2002) helps illustrate what exactly could be occurring. He determines that dreamers become aware of their paralyzed state during the sleep paralysis episode, as they become aware of their inability to move. Typically, dreamers try to rouse themselves from the state. He reports having an out-of-the-body-experience (OBE) in 1969 in conjunction with his sleep paralysis episode (Conesa, 2002). This out of body experience, although not entirely the same, seems rather similar to what I have experienced in the past while in a state of sleep paralysis. Being consciously aware of both my paralysis and my lucidity while in this state is increasingly unnerving, and regardless of whether there is a non-paranormal, but rather a realistic and plausible response to my question of how the images in my mind projected into the real world, I am still led to believe that there is a correlation between sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming that creates a bridge of some sort to allow for these projections (hallucinations). This bridge allows for dream content to project in reality. Again, this is a sort of dream residue left from the lucid dream. It is as if the body is roused from the sleeping state too quickly and the dream is still occurring, so these hallucinations occur, creating some level of anxiety and fear in its sleeper. As I force my eyes open I remain mentally aware of the dream content, and rather quickly become alerted to the dream content’s projections in the real world. In the sleepy state however, I find it difficult to make this distinction: that the images I see are dream residue, or mere hallucinations. The fear I experience while in these states is seemingly insurmountable.

It may help before we proceed in these discussions to define lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis, so as to provide our readers with some basis of understanding. Simply put, a lucid dream is a dream in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. The dreamer may be able to exert some level of control over the dream and it’s direction (Kahan, 1994). Sleep paralysis occurs when the body becomes paralyzed and the dreamer is unable to move, speak or react to the world around them. There are two general forms of sleep paralysis: one which occurs prior to falling asleep, referred to as hypnagogic, or predormital sleep paralysis and the second which occurs upon waking, where the person becomes aware prior to the cessation of the REM period. This state is referred to as hypnopomic or postdormital sleep paralysis (WebMD). Interestingly, sleep paralysis has been linked to such disorders as anxiety, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, generalized stress, and migraines (Ohayon, M.; Zulley, J.; Guilleminault, C.; Smirne, S, 1999; Terrillon, J.; Marques-Bonham, S., 2001). In their researches, Jalal, Romanelli and Hinton found that typically, hallucinations accompany sleep paralysis, due to the heightened awareness of the dreamer (Jalal, Baland; Romanelli, Andrea; Hinton, Devon E., 2015), and this seemingly answers our question of what was occurring: I was experiencing hallucinations.

HIshikawa (1979) and Hufford (1982) expand upon hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHE’s) as including auditory and visual hallucinations, feelings of pressure on the chest, suffocating, choking, floating and out of body experiences (as cited by Cheyne, Rueffer and Newby-Clark, 1999). These experiences when accompanying sleep paralysis appear more vivid, elaborate and multimodal, therefore making them more terrifying (Hufford, 1982; Takeuchi, Miyasita, Inugami, Sasaki and Fukuda, 1994; as cited by Cheyne, Rueffer and Newby-Clark, 1999). It has been suggested that a hyper-vigilant state is created upon awakening in a sleep paralysis state, due primarily to the need for survival (Cheyne, J., 2003), and it has been hypothesized that the amygdala is heavily involved in this threat-activation system, which could help explain the hallucinatory components dreamers experience while in their paralyzed stat (Sharpless, B., McCarthy, K., Chambless, D., Milrod, B., Khalsa, S., & Barber, J., 2010).

Paralysis during sleep is not abnormal, we are paralyzed every night in REM sleep. Muscle atonia occurs during REM sleep so that we do not act out our dreams (Carskadon, M. A., & Dement, W. C., 1994). When we wake from REM sleep our bodies should respond accordingly, and our mobility should return. When we experience sleep paralysis our mind becomes aware of our paralyzed state and we continue to experience paralysis, even after REM sleep has stopped. This is where we begin to experience paranormal and otherwise inexplicable phenomenon (witness to otherworldly hallucinations including evil spirits and demons). Terrifying as it is, these visions are harmless and all we are able to do is wait patiently for the episode to end. It may be possible to bring the episode to a swift end by practising and honing methods used to wake the body and mind simultaneously out of this state. It is my firm belief that there is more to sleep paralysis than merely “stress” or “anxiety” and that the hallucinations we witness are much more personalized and tailored to our personal psyche. Understanding any underlying causes may contribute to avoiding or treating sleep paralysis and the accompanying HHE’s. With anything, treating the cause not the symptom will prove much more beneficial than focusing solely on symptom control.

I am still not satisfied with our current understanding of sleep paralysis and HHE’s. There must be some alternate explanation, there must be some personalization of HHE’s. Is it realistic to assume that a window is opened between the dream world and the waking world to allow for the exchange of mental content while experiencing sleep paralysis, or is it much more likely that these hallucinations stem from an evolutionary necessity to keep ourselves safe? They evoke fear and anxiety in us, and stimulate our fight or flight response. According to Cheyne (2003), our threat vigilance system encourages us to interpret ambiguous stimuli as dangerous or evil, in order to guard against potentially threatening objects, thus increasing the likelihood of our survival. Are the ambiguous stimuli only ambiguous because our subconscious mind continues to protect us against much more insidious forms of the stimuli. Upon further analysis of the stimuli, will we find that they actually expose us to deeper and darker parts of our psyche? Is our fear a valid response because we fear the reality of ourselves and the repressed aspects of our minds? This too can be qualified from an evolutionary standpoint: the reason our superego structure protects us from the deep recessed of our subconscious is because the personal and cultural memories, histories and experiences are far too intense, questionable, or gruesome for our conscious psyche to handle. This is why even when we dream and these thoughts and memories rush to the forefront of our minds, they continue to be masked through manifest content. We have heard this many times before in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1900): this is not new information. However, it would make sense for our hallucinations to be related to the manifest content in our dreams, and perhaps in our sleep paralysis state our superego is weakened even more and the manifest content evolves into the latent content it so tirelessly tries to mask. Thus our hallucinations more closely resemble the latent content, invoking fear and anxiety in us. We try to escape this wicked reality, and continue to repress even these hallucinations. We fear the answers our mind protects us from, so we fail to ask the questions. 

Although I believe that what we experience can much more readily be explained through personal analysis the question still remains: are incubi, succubi and evil spirits real? They fall more within the realm of paranormal and since this is not only not my area of expertise, I do not have a vested interest in these phenomenon, therefore I can’t justify concocting some mediocre response to this question. I can say, however, that the experience of having encountered one such spirit is of no less value, regardless of how real it is. These experiences do not need to be defined as real in order for us to experience the fear and anxiety they so amply provide us with. Perhaps, in addiction to this, they offer us insight into our psyche and our current mental state. I still believe that the hallucinations we witness while in these states are not unrelated to our previous dreaming state: rather, they are exact or manipulated versions of our dream images. It is possibly the most real way to experience a dream, the absolute most lucid form of dreaming. It is important too, just as with any interpretative practice, to focus on the emotions elicited while in such a state as sleep paralysis. Our initial conception of the hallucination may help us understand previous thoughts or feelings we had prior to sleep paralysis. I have read that it is well within normalcy to have a fear response to these phenomenon, and as was mentioned earlier this may be due to our need for survival (fear is what keeps us safe from harm). However, should we analyze the exact image we experienced in our sleep paralysis state, the emotional response we had to it, and any REM related dreams we had prior to the onset of awareness. With this, we may be able to determine if these are interrelated and how. If we can determine any extraneous stimuli that influence sleep paralysis we may be able to control for it, at least to some degree. These would need to occur on a person by person basis. There are a multitude of ways in which sleep paralysis can be influenced; stress, anxiety, over-tiredness, sleep apnea and so forth. I am unable to use my past experience as an example because the fear I experienced continued to paralyze me well after my muscles slackened from the sleep paralysis. To this end, I was unable to determine with any confidence the exact profile of my hallucination, and my mind was wiped clean of any dreams I had throughout the night. Unfortunately because of this I am currently unable to begin building a case around my sleep paralysis patterns and the kinds of hallucinations I witness while in these states. I can say that I have experienced sleep paralysis all of three times before this most recent experience, and that typically it occurs while my stress is unbridled. I can make no further comments without it being mere speculation. Should this occur again, perhaps my fear will subside long enough so that I can start building a case for these personal experiences.

 

References:

Carskadon, M. A., & Dement, W. C. (1994). Normal Human Sleep: An Overview. In M. H. Kryger, T. Roth, & W. C. Dement (Eds.), Principles of and practice of sleep medicine. (2nd ed., pp. 3-13). Philadelphia: Saunders.

Cheyne, J. (2003). “Sleep Paralysis and the Structure of Waking-Nightmare Hallucinations”. Dreaming. 13 (3): 163–179.

Jalal, Baland; Romanelli, Andrea; Hinton, Devon E. (2015-12-01). “Cultural Explanations of Sleep Paralysis in Italy: The Pandafeche Attack and Associated Supernatural Beliefs”. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 39 (4): 651–664.

Kahan T.; LaBerge S. (1994). “Lucid dreaming as metacognition: Implications for cognitive science”. Consciousness and Cognition. 3: 246–264.

Ohayon, M.; Zulley, J.; Guilleminault, C.; Smirne, S. (1999). “Prevalence and pathologic associations of sleep paralysis in the general population”. Neurology. 52 (6): 1194–2000.

Sharpless, B.; McCarthy, K.; Chambless, D.; Milrod, B.; Khalsa, S.; Barber, J. (2010). “Isolated sleep paralysis and fearful isolated sleep paralysis in outpatients with panic attacks”. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 66 (12): 1292–1306.

Sleep paralysis. (n.d). http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis.

Terrillon, J.; Marques-Bonham, S. (2001). “Does Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis Involve More Than Cognitive Neurosciences?”. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 15: 97–123.

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