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On Sleep Paralysis And Its Avoidance: Part I Introduction

Updated on April 19, 2013


This four-part series of articles describes the surprisingly common ailment of sleep paralysis; what it is and how I overcame it. Although bodily paralysis is a natural element of sleep, problems can arise if the sleeper suddenly wakens but fails to shake off fully all the characteristics of sleep.

For many, the combination of paralysis and hallucinations can be an alarming experience, therefore the descriptions contained in these articles are not suitable for people of a nervous disposition.

Part I provides a general introduction to the phenomenon.

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Typically, when we enter the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, ie the stage when most of our dreaming occurs, hormones are released to paralyze the body. It is believed that this happens to stop us acting out our dreams and is considered to be quite normal. For example, it wouldn't be very helpful to dream about winning the World Boxing Championship only to waken in the morning to find your partner covered in bruises.

A problem arises, however, when for some reason we waken from the sleep but the paralysis remains. That, in itself, can be quite alarming for some people although with persistence they eventually manage to waken up and shake off the paralysis. However, in many cases the paralysis is accompanied by lucid dreams and/or hallucinations. Worse still, the hallucinations are usually of a malevolent nature and can seem very real. Some have described them as worse than anything Hollywood can create!

Some movies may have been loosely based on experiences of sleep paralysis.

The good news is that, unlike in the movies, no physical harm is caused by sleep paralysis. It's all in the mind. As the cliché goes: there's nothing to fear but fear itself.

How Common Is Sleep Paralysis?

Using representational surveys, it has been estimated that over 40 percent of the population will experience the problem at least once in their lives. It's more common among teenagers than the elderly and often starts during adolescence.

Sleep paralysis isn't a new or modern phenomenon, it has been known about for centuries across many cultures. Typically it's described in terms of someone wakening, unable to move, usually with their eyes paralyzed shut, but most commonly with a strong sense of a dark malevolent presence in the room with them. All the senses hallucinate but in particular the sense of touch. That then typically leads to an experience of the dark being jumping on top of the sleeper, typically holding them down on the bed or maybe even swinging them around the room.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have been alluding to sleep paralysis in: The Pains of Sleep. c. 1816.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have been alluding to sleep paralysis in: The Pains of Sleep. c. 1816.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me,

Distemper's worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream,

Had waked me from the fiendish dream.

Shaking Off The Paralysis

Having (partially) woken from a sleep only to find that you are in sleep paralysis, the primary desire is usually to waken completely and sit up in bed. The current medical advice to overcome the paralysis is to concentrate first on moving a peripheral body part such as a finger. Then a hand and arm and then the entire body. Some have found this method to work. My approach is to try to move the entire body all at once. The first attempt typically fails, but the mental decision to try again and again, seems to send a message to the brain telling it to withdraw the paralysis hormone from the body.

Consequently, after at most half a dozen attempts, it works. However, at that point, the overwhelming feeling for most people is that they are balanced precariously on the brink between staying awake and falling back into sleep paralysis again. Therefore, it's best to sit up in bed for a few minutes. Some get out of bed and walk around the room for a while to make sure they're fully awake before attempting to go back to sleep again.

Alien Abductions?

Some stories of alien abduction sound very similar to sleep paralysis. I once read a story about a couple who woke up in the middle of the night to find aliens in their bedroom. The aliens removed their child from its cot and then flew out the window along with the child. The parents said they couldn't do anything to protect the child because they had been paralyzed by the aliens.

Comparing this to anecdotes from people who experience sleep paralysis but with their eyes open; one man reported seeing an alien in his room, but when he managed to waken himself fully and shake off the paralysis, he suddenly realized that the 'alien' was actually a hallucination based on a shaft of light shining through the curtains from a street light.

I once managed to waken myself to find that the 'voices' I was listening to were actually the brain's distortion of the sound of my own breathing. During sleep paralysis, it seems like the brain uses all sorts of real sensory inputs to present very different realities to the consciousness.

Is There A Cure?

Officially, there's no cure for sleep paralysis, and many people suffer great distress as a result. However, after analyzing the symptoms and circumstances of my own experiences (an occurrence rate of perhaps once or twice per month), I eventually noticed a pattern of events that greatly increased the likelihood of an attack occurring. From that, I was able to formulate a methodology for avoiding it. And – after putting the theory into practice – it worked. I no longer suffer from the problem. To be more accurate, I do occasionally experience the problem, but only when I slip up and don't apply the methodology properly.

I should also make it clear that my theory refers to 'how' sleep paralysis happens (in my case at least) not 'why' it happens. The 'why' is still as much of a mystery to me as ever, but by knowing how it happens I'm able to avoid the conditions that trigger sleep paralysis. For a description of the solution that worked for me, see Part II.


Please be patient if a subsequent part of this series is not available. I'll be releasing the four parts in sequence here on HubPages so, as soon as one article is approved, I'll start writing the next. Consequently, there may be delays of several days between publications. Please come back and try again later if you do not see the article you're looking for. Thank you.

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