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Sleep Paralysis: Experiences and Theories

Updated on January 31, 2014
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Kitty has had paranormal experiences her entire life. These experiences have fueled her passion to write about all things supernatural.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a rather frightening occurrence for all who have experienced it firsthand. If you've ever woken up from a nightmare into another nightmare and were not able to move your body, then you've had sleep paralysis. Other signs and symptoms of this condition or experience are feelings of choking, suffocating, and not being able to speak. Generally this sleep phenomenon happens in the sufferer's REM stages of sleep, or just as they are about to wake up.

There are various scientific and supernatural theories that try to explain this terrifying phenomenon. But can science really define sleep paralysis, or is it indeed something supernatural occurring here? We'll explore the theories behind sleep paralysis, as well as the legends surrounding the phenomenon.

Fusseli's "The Nightmare" depicting what seems to be a creature paralyzing a woman in her sleep.
Fusseli's "The Nightmare" depicting what seems to be a creature paralyzing a woman in her sleep. | Source

Experiences With Sleep Paralysis

Many people experience sleep disturbances and disorders every night ranging from night terrors to sleepwalking, sleep apnea to sleep paralysis. And the list of these sleeping disorders could go on and on. The majority of these sleep disorders can indeed be explained by science and by the body's natural physiological make-up; however, sleep paralysis seems to be a lot more intense and complex than sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. For the people who experience sleep paralysis once or more in their lifetimes, they are convinced it is more than a simple glitch in the nervous system. Here are a few of those hair-raising stories.

"The first time I experienced sleep paralysis was when I was ten years old. I remember it clearly as it frightened the living day lights out of me. I was sleeping in my bed at my grandparents' house, when suddenly I woke up and couldn't move a muscle. There was a creature at the end of my bed staring at me intently...with green eyes and long fingernails. I wanted to scream out for my grandma but I couldn't even talk! I was paralyzed...and gripped with fear. This thing began tickling my feet...which seems like a funny experience but in fact it almost made me wet the bed I was so scared. And the tickling didn't feel good, it actually hurt. But I couldn't move. And then...I really woke up and out of the paralysis. It was one of the scariest things I've ever gone through as a kid..."

"I experienced sleep paralysis when I was about nineteen-years-old and living with some friends in an older house. It was probably built in the 1920s and had a lot of history to it. I swore it was haunted, but I was never scared of it. One night I had what seemed to be a dream but then again crossed over into reality. I woke up in my bed and the blinds on my windows flipped open...I couldn't move. I couldn't get up, run, or even scream. I was completely lifeless but yet my eyes were open and I could see the shadow of a man looking at me from outside one of my windows. It was extremely terrifying...I'll never forget it. And after that dreams, for days I felt that someone was watching me...stalking me..."

And another personal story of sleep paralysis:

"About a year ago, I had a bout of sleep paralysis that scared me beyond words can describe. The hallucination or dream went like this - I woke up in my own bed, next to my husband and young daughter. Something evil was on top of the bed, floating above us. It looked like a demon of sorts, and it picked up my daughter and began to shake her violently. I was paralyzed...couldn't move...couldn't scream for my husband to wake up...nothing. And all I could do was watch as my daughter was shaken to death by this demon thing. Then I really woke up and realized that it was all a horrifying my daughter was sound asleep in her own bed and had been the whole time. I saged my entire house after that dream..."

Is it a shadow man who causes sleep paralysis?
Is it a shadow man who causes sleep paralysis? | Source
Statue depicting the this creature behind the phenomenon of sleep paralysis?
Statue depicting the this creature behind the phenomenon of sleep paralysis? | Source

Legends Associated With Sleep Paralysis

There are legends all over the world pertaining to the sleep disturbance called sleep paralysis. Some of these legends go back centuries in time. One of the most common legends behind the sleep paralysis nightmare is known as the "night hag" or "old hag syndrome". This was a common belief in England and elsewhere in Europe that a witch (or old hag) would come and sit on the sleeper's chest at night, suffocating and paralyzing them. The term nightmare is actually a term related to this phenomenon, as the syllable mare was actually thought to be a demonic creature in Scandinavian lore that would torment folks in their sleep similar to the Old Hag.

A similar belief and really the same belief just in a different culture is the belief in the Cauchemar. This is a legend told by many Cajun folks in the Southern United States, but originates in France. It is the same in that a scary old woman will sit on the dreamer's chest, not allowing them to move or scream. A friend of mine actually made an entire video about this Southern and French legend, that I will post below.

Another associated legend and experience that seems to have a tie to sleep paralysis is the sightings of shadow people or shadow men. Many times over, it is not an old woman or creature sitting on one's chest during sleep paralysis but rather a shadow person or shadow man in the corner of the room paralyzing the sleeper with his/her stares and silence.

Have you experienced sleep paralysis?

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Science Explains Sleep Paralysis

Just as in any other seemingly supernatural phenomenon, science has found a way to explain the sleep paralysis experience. While logic tells us that sleep paralysis most definitely has a logical and physiological explanation, to those who have actually experienced sleep paralysis this might be difficult to apply.

However, the scientific explanation to sleep paralysis mainly says that sleep paralysis usually goes hand-in-hand with other sleep disorders or nervous system disorders i.e. narcolepsy, anxiety, or sleep apnea. What happens is that your body shuts down physically during REM sleep so that you do not get up and act out your dreams. Sometimes our minds might begin to wake up but our bodies haven't had a chance to catch up...which scientifically explains the feeling of being awake but not being able to move a muscle. But to many people this does not explain the utter feelings of doom nor does it explain the terrifying hallucinations of demonic creatures and invaders in the room.

Or is it something supernatural?

So if we suppose that maybe sleep paralysis is more than just a sleep disorder, maybe it is something supernatural. Some of the people who have experienced sleep paralysis also have something else in common with their sleeping patterns...they are lucid dreamers and astral travelers. This means they have the ability to be conscious in their know that they are dreaming while in their dreams and be able to control their dreams.

Astral travel means that their consciousness literally leaves their bodies at night and travels to another plane of existence. Now, not everyone believes in this but many people who have experienced astral travel certainly do. And it is interesting to note that many of them also have a commonality that they've gone through bouts of sleep paralysis.

One supernatural theory is that there are creatures on the astral plane or on this mundane plane that feed off of a dreamer's body energy while that dreamer's consciousness isn't there to defend itself. This certainly explains the sleep paralysis (as you are just coming back into your body and realize this creature is feeding off your energy) and the awful hallucinations that come along with the occurrence. Would this be a psychic vampire of sorts?

Or is it all in their heads or a simple glitch in the nervous system? Have you ever had sleep paralysis? And if so, do you believe it is scientifically explained or something supernatural?

Written and copyright by © KittytheDreamer (May Canfield), 2013. All Rights Reserved.


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  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Cassilynn - Thank you for reading.

  • Cassilynn profile image

    Cassandra 2 years ago from Canada, B.C.

    Thanks Kitty, very interesting...!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    DzyMsLizzy - I agree totally. That doesn't explain sleepwalking. Thanks for chiming in!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 2 years ago from Oakley, CA

    This has never happened to me, and I have often read the scientific explanation of paralysis during REM sleep so as not to act out one's dreams.

    This leaves me with the question, "Then how do you explain sleepwalking?" A neighbor we had when I was a kid described a perfectly terrifying instance of sleepwalking by her sister when they were kids. They lived on a farm, no electricity, and sometime in the middle of this one night, her sister went sleepwalking, lit a kerosene lamp, and set it down next to her on the pillow when she went back to bed!

    Luckily, this was discovered before a disaster could occur!! Now that is scary!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Cassilynn - It's possible you were hearing your astral double either returning or leaving your body...I highly recommend reading Claude Lecouteux's book on Astral won't be disappointed. Hope this helps a little. :)

  • Cassilynn profile image

    Cassandra 2 years ago from Canada, B.C.

    I've had only one experience with sleep paralysis, I am 22 years old and I'm a lucid dreamer.

    I was having a dream of a social gathering with some friends and I was trying to control what was happening in my dream as I often do. I then hear a rough woman's voice (almost demonic) in my ear and she's trying to tell me what to do in my dream or encourage me to control it, which made it harder as now I'm curious/creeped out by this. Already I'm trying to wake myself up because my curious side knows when to quit and as I'm trying to wake up the woman's voice is telling me to "go towards the light" and to "please not let her fade away..."

    I wake up and I can't move a muscle but I can see everything in my room. I'm breathing and trying to move. I didn't see anything when I woke up, what happened instead was a felt her inside me (which was terrifying needless to say.) I felt her bounce from one side of my body to the other and I knew which side she was on by the pressure in my ears, and then I felt a release and could move again.

    Based on my experience I feel like this was paranormal. Maybe it's a combination of the scientific aspect of waking up at the wrong time -simply put- and touching on/experiencing another world. (Spirt world that is.)

    Pretty intriguing but also scary because we don't fully understand it...yet

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    wahyldflouer - I've had this happen at least twice in my life, but probably more. Each time is so terrifying, it gives me chills just thinking of it. I do believe it has something to do with being able to travel in the "astral" plane while you sleep, and when your soul/astral body rejoins with its physical weird things can happen. I do also believe that lower entities can try to feed off of us while our astral souls are away from our physical bodies...which is obviously frightening to think about. I could go on and on about this, as there are so many different theories out there and each one is interesting! Thank you for sharing.

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    wahyldflouer 2 years ago

    Hi Kitty,

    I've had multiple experiences with sleep paralysis, sleepwalking, out of body experiences, and astral travel.

    I've had two very frightening experiences where I was physically attacked while in sleep paralysis.

    The first of the two occurred when I was 19 years old. I layed down to take a nap after work in the afternoon, and woke up during sleep paralysis. A young woman in a long white cotton t-shirt was standing in front of my bedroom door, and she slowly walked to the side of my bed. She climbed on top of me, and pulled my pillow out from under my head. She began smothering me with the pillow, and I couldn't do anything to fight her off. I eventually woke up, and my pillow was in the middle of my bedroom on the floor.

    I was living in what I believed was a haunted house for a few years in my early twenties. During that time I had many experiences with spirit entities, and sleep paralysis. During that time I felt as though I was being stalked by an angry spirit.

    Another of the scariest encounters I've had during sleep paralysis occurred when I was 25 years old. I woke up in a state of sleep paralysis suddenly, and I was pulled violently off the foot of my bed. I had a platform bedframe at the time, and I hit my head on the edge of the frame when this happened. That was the last thing I remembered. When I woke up I had a knot on the back of my head. I was petrified, because I remembered being pulled off, and feeling the whole thing happen.

    In January of this year (2015) I experienced something completely different during sleep paralysis. I woke up to a floral scent in my bedroom, and my vision seemed to be obscured by a pink glow. I felt a very gentle, loving presence, and no fear at all. This was shortly after losing my step-grandmother and my maternal grandmother, who both passed in December.

    I don't know about you, but I have a feeling that these experiences go hand in hand with supernatural or unexplained phenomena concerning spirits and the like. I wonder if any one else has had a pleasnant, non-threatening experience like the one I had earlier this year.

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    Coldsnow 2 years ago

    This post is so interesting! I have experienced this before and it is so terrifying!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 2 years ago from the Ether

    Ariesgirls - I think that there are a lot of people who experience sleep paralysis and it is always eerily similar if not completely the same. I will check out your hub. Thanks for sharing!

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    Heidi Johnson 2 years ago from Vinton, Ohio

    Hello Kitty! I have to laugh because I just published a hub that is VERY similar to yours. I also have sleep paralysis and wanted to explore both sides of the coin so to speak surrounding the theory of why it occurs- the scientific explanation and the supernatural theories. I'm pretty new here (almost a month) and so I just wrote... on what I knew. And so I'm reading yours here and I'm like, "Wow!" Very nice article. Apparently great minds think alike:)

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    Jeff Meyer 3 years ago

    I have had 2 for sure experiences with both sleep paralysis and these creatures. The first was when I was about 14 or 15 maybe even earlier I was sleeping in my bed and woke up suddenly didn't know why but when I did I noticed a small very dark shadow in the corner of my room. After seeing this I closed my eyes thinking I guess that the figure would go away but when i reopened them ithad grown ssignificance taller, much taller than me or anyone else in my household at that time. I closed my eyes again hoping once again that it would just go away but instead when i opened them this time it had stepped closer to me. I think I had opened and closed my eyes about 3 more times b4 it was literally right on top of me, now this is about the time I realized that I could not move anything but my eyes so I was blinking pretty rapidly since that's all I could do. As I was blinking it reached out and touched my arm right in my forearm about 3 in from my hand. After it touched me it disappeared and I didn't sleep the rest of the night.

    The second time was during a period of time when i was actively trying to avoid seeing this being again. I had slept I believe on the floor in the other room (used to be my sisters room till she moved out) and this time it just stared at me and the moment I calmed down I could move and the entity was gone. There were a few other occasions where I almost went back into sleep paralysis but I somehow got out of it and began to sleep normally.

    Just for some background I grew up in a very old parnormally active house and lived there till I was 10 the house we moved to was literally brand new (freshly built on land with nothing else there b4). I am not new to the strange and spooky in fact it all attracts me for some reason but i try to stay out of it. I can always tell when something is near good evil and I seem to be able to not destroy it but make it leave when I want it to but this thing this shadow scared the living Shit out of me for years, and i have to say im happy to see that im not alone.

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    Nicole Canfield 3 years ago from the Ether

    smiley - That's scary. It sounds to me like you get stuck in that in-between state...which happens to me often. I wish you the best of luck and health.

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    smiley 3 years ago

    In my case for almost 2 yrs exactly at 12 o 3am something unexplained would choke me breath heavyly on my time I awoke to someone or something humping me on my back;at the same time choking me n breathing so hard on my left ear nothing/no one was there.Felt this when I was awake already

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    Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

    Whoa! I need to try that, ParadigmEnacted. Thanks for sharing.

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    ParadigmEnacted 4 years ago

    I've experienced a whole host of sleep disorders throughout my life, including sleep paralysis quite regularly. I can buy into it being a defense mechanism against acting out the movements of the dream, but sometimes I act those out anyway, especially with night terrors. I haven't really got those since I've been back in a familiar environment and sleep alone, but in the past I was constantly antagonized in my sleep and more than ready to go. If there were ghouls and goblins in the room with me at times past, they didn't fare to well and now they leave me alone, even without the light on.

    Still I get the paralysis thing often. Normally I'll need to walk somewhere or even get away from something and it's like walking through wet cement. But this one time I exploited the sleep paralysis. Instead of trying to move forward against the force of resistance slowing me down, I simply pushed off of it so that I was elevating upward into the air, higher and higher with each movement. I was pissed when I woke up and found out that I couldn't actually do that.

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

    Totskrick - Your first experience with sleep paralysis sounds a lot like my first experience with it. These entities that were tugging and pulling on you were feeding off of your energy. Sleep paralysis usually occurs when your astral body is re-connecting with your physical body, after astral travel that is. Sometimes these spirits and lower vibrational beings will try to feed off of your physical body while you are "away" on the astral planes. I have had it happen more than once. Now I ask my spirit guides and deities to watch over me and protect both my astral and physical body. Another thing I noticed is that these lower beings tend to feed off of negativity. Whenever I'm going through a sort of depression or negative phase in my life they tend to show up...if that makes sense. You are NOT crazy nor do you sound crazy, I have had many experiences like the ones you are describing. I believe it's just that certain people are more aware of these things...these things are all around us and happen all of the time it's just that most people have been programmed to believe otherwise. Hope this helps! Blessings.

  • Totskrick profile image

    Taylor Krick 4 years ago from Atlanta

    I had two experiences with Sleep Paralysis.

    One was very minor,although it was scary as shit before I had a more severe case happen to me.

    The severe case was really traumatic and fucked up for me at the time.

    It happened when I was 15 or 16 -

    I was sleeping on my Moms couch. Straight on my back, which I usually don't sleep like that.

    I don't remember at what point I went from awake to being asleep...and then from unconscience to conscience, but

    I remember It was like I was awake in the living room and it was dark.

    I could see everything in the living room (although it was dark)

    as if I was awake.

    I remember laying there without the ability to move,and I tried to move so bad.I feel like I could even feel my physical body twitching a little bit in reality.

    I remember laying there paralyzed, being able to see my moms living room PERFECTLY as if I was awake. and then abunch of people.

    I mean A lot of people surrounded me and began to tug on my body and scratch me and some of them hit me.

    Finally I forced myself to wake up, and I even think I threw myself off the couch to do it.

    It's very traumatic and for anybody going through it for the first time, I feel sorry for you.

    Back when that happened to me, I thought of it in a Heaven and Hell sort of way.Like two sides were pulling me to either side.

    but that doesn't make sense to me today.

    Because why would the people from heaven be hitting me?

    After reading this Hub, I feel like it was just many spirits that were attracted to my physical body while I was away.

    Does anybody else know what this might have meant?

    It wasn't just one entitee it was what seemed like a 30 or 40 tugging and hitting and clawing me at once.

    Also, I have MANY experiences with "Shadow People",

    I've seen an angel,I've had dreams that predicted the future, and have told myself the future without realizing it at the moment...I'm not trying to sound crazy, what I'm trying to say is that I'm very opened up to the spiritual world and I don't understand why.

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    diallo b 4 years ago

    my first experience with sleep paralysis was with an old woman in a black rob. she had no face except one crooked eye. I had the sensation that I could barely breath, I could not move, or scream. she was holding me down by my hand but she had some kind of control over me. I woke up because of the feeling of someone holding me down. I have been diagnosed bipolar but didn't know of the link with shadow people.

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    lingy 4 years ago

    hi there yes iv been thew the sleep thing and i tell you mate it wasn't great.i hated it.i was dreaming of me gettn chased fm a man in black.this dream became so real that i woke up and screamd and even tryd moving round for help,yet some reason i couldn't it was so real,then all of a sudden bang i wake up fully and 1st thing i do is move an shout to see if im ok and im nt pin down back to normal.i never wanna go thew that shit agen.i wanna fuck it up if i could no shit!

  • TangibleChanges profile image

    Rev. Lisa Laverde D.D 4 years ago

    Yes I do do sage and salt and my own blends of oils and herbs. The cracked rib was a while ago before I knew what was happening to me. I just thought prior to my run in with the entity that I was having seizures!

    However If it were not for that event as terrifying as it was, I would have never learned what was truly happening to me, and the results for that could have been far worse!!! People who experience this often, is because they have reach a state of spiritual evolution where just as regular mundane experiences like house robbery, car theft, happen to people in this realm we live in, there comes a point in the evolution of our energy, or "soul" that we are able to travel into other realms to receive information, and still be able to travel back to this realm with the knowledge that we were able obtain. So with being able to travel into other realms and then back to ours, can sometimes bring forth envy from the otherside. And just as here on this realm, some people just want what others have worked long and hard to achieve own, but they do not want to put in the effort of working hard to get it, so they rather just brake in your house, or a bank etc and steel it! Well so do spirits of other realms. When you are discovered to be able to travel between realms, and work with all of the energies from each one, well, just as I mentioned earlier... you are then seen by spirits who have not evolved to this way of existing, and become a target of envy. So as you drift off to receive messages, and travel realms. Your host is now left open, and sometimes it will attract energy/entity that what's to be amongst the living!

    So I still have " sleep paralysis" however it only scary now, when I come back from astral projection to find a negative entity just kind of waiting for me to have so kind of glitch, or even a small opening in the protection circle that it can enter thru! Sometimes when I see that,( cause it gets pretty terrifying") I do dash back into my physical body causing the ucky can't breath feeling of sleep paralyses

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

    TangibleChanges - WOW. That is a very intense story of sleep paralysis. I can't believe you still experience this so often. Do you do a sage cleansing in your home often? Usually that takes care of the problem for me immediately. If not, have you done a salt circle around the perimeter of your house? Just curious as to if anything of these methods might help. The cracked rib thing is scary! I'm sorry you had to go through such a frightening experience, but I know how scary it can be...however, I am lucky in that it has never physically hurt me.

  • TangibleChanges profile image

    Rev. Lisa Laverde D.D 4 years ago

    I experience sleep paralysis at least 7 days out of a month. This started at a young age for me, and when I was little I would feel like I was dyeing! I was horribly frightened by it because I not only couldn't move, but I couldn't breathe either. I remember trying to scream for my mother to hear me, or anyone to help me. As i got older they didn’t stop, but would become further apart. I was brought to doctors and they all said they did not find anything abnormal. One night I saw this shadow of a man come in threw my bedroom door, as soon as I turned to get a better view he was gone, so I thought! As I exhaled in relief and began to roll back over...there he was, this tall black shadow man.

    I opened my mouth to scream I saw him raise up his hand, the hand was terribly terrifying, and his fingers looked to be 12inches long, as well as super skinny. I remember seeing his hand fan out all of his long, slender, black fingers as he started to bring his hand down to wear my mouth was. I remember feeling how cold each finger was while he slid them down my chin and all the way down to my left ribcage. I was laying on my stomach with my head faced towards the wall, I felt a stabbing pain in my rib, he had grabbed my rib so hard that I wanted to scream!!! But when I opened my mouth to do so...nothing came out, the pain was becoming worse and my and the skin on my back felt frostbitten. I could see my husband the whole time, he was laying rite next to me fast asleep, as I was being tortured by some sort of demonic type entity I did not think I was going to survive that night I could feel his long black, freezing cold fingers wrap around my he tightened his hold, the pain was too much to handle and I think, but I am not sure...I blacked out. When I came to in the morning I couldn’t breath without severe pain the area where he had a firm grip in me, was indeed a deep purple/blue/red bruise!!!

    I had only told my husband the details that was involved that night, I was certain if I told anyone else I would have been deemed insane! A few hours after I woke and noticed the bruising, and confided in him all that took place, I have made plans later to see my mother, and as soon as I went to her house my pain became UNBEARABLE!!!

    I ended up getting brought to the hospital where they took ex rays and found I had a broken rib!!!


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    Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

    karthikkash - It sounds very much like you have the ability to astrally project. And yes, the sleep paralysis usually only happens when you're on your back...same here with mine.

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    Karthik Kashyap 4 years ago from India

    I have been a victim of sleep paralysis multiple times, the last one being a few months ago. I don't know if there is a simple scientific explanation or it is supernatural. But, I am just hoping that I never ever go through that again. It is not a nightmare, it is worse than that. I felt like I almost died and it was a spirit killing me. My sleep paralysis usually involved many spirits, but the last one involved the "death" figure in the black gown sitting beside my pillow looking at me. I pretty much woke up sweating after a huge effort.

    It occurs in a funny way though. And this may have a bit of scientific explanation. I experience sleep paralysis only when I sleep on my back. Hence, I make a conscious effort not to sleep on my back.

    I also don't know if I have powers of astral projection or lucid dreaming, but I think I am a bit more pyschically sensitive during my sleep hours as I have felt a couple of times a strange change in energy and presence (especially the day my aunt died), I felt a negative presence of her spirit. That is another story :)

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    Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

    getitrite - There is usually a scientific explanation for everything. Thanks for reading.

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    getitrite 4 years ago

    I have suffered from sleep disorders for many years. From sleep paralysis to sleepwalking to night terrors. In fact, I wrote two hubs, detailing the events of two of my episodes. I'm not really superstitious, so I am quite sure there is a scientific explanation for these occurrences.