There are times when, in my sleep, I struggle to save myself from a terrifying feeling that has left me numb, but with my heart pounding at racing speed.
Most of us have gone through the ordeal. You are lying on the bed with your eyes open, you see everything that’s going on, including a fly that lands on your nose and walks around your face but you can’t move a muscle of your body. And now something is pressing heavily down on you, you struggle to breathe.
You need help, but you can’t scream, but you can see at the corner what looks like a creature that just walked out of the making of Harry Potter. It feels like a nightmare but the difference is that you know you are awake because you can see around you.
We may want to liken this to some gruesome scene from a horror film, but indeed it is not; it is in fact very real. It is a fascinating phenomenon referred to as Sleep Paralysis (SP) or, more accurately, hypnagogic sleep paralysis.
It is a common experience which doctors around the world vow that at least happens to a person once. An online site suggests that 40 percent of the general population experience it at least once in their life time.
However, an unlucky few can have repeated attacks in one night or several times a week. In extreme cases, people can find their lives heavily disrupted by SP.
A workmate, a sufferer in the extreme, went to see a doctor because this bothers him quite frequently, especially if he wakes up and then tries to go back to sleep or if he takes a nap during the day or sleep on his back.
“I told the Chinese doctor that I was having recurring frightening dreams and explained to her what was happening to me and when. She told me that she suffered from the same when her father passed away, adding that it is caused by stress or your mind overworking on something”.
This is a simple explanation she gave him.
“In Chinese we call it “crushed by the ghost” because the pressing is done by something ever so light but the heaviness felt on your body is tremendous. It is called a hypnagognic state.” She explained further: “When you fall asleep, both your body and brain must sleep but in this state, the mind wakes up while the body is asleep and it is this disconnect which causes us the fright as we are awake and can sometimes see and hear people around but cannot move or lift a finger.”
But in African culture, the experience is mostly associated with witchcraft, where one is warned that zombies or thokolosis visit them in their sleep. Thus it’s being referred to in Setswana as sebeteledi or setshitshama.
And believe me I bought the theory as a child because the creatures I used to see that resembled leprechauns or celestial beings were nothing I never knew to exist, and when the explanation came that it was the doings of witches, I swallowed it all.
An SP episode can last from a few seconds to some minutes, according to a website. It also goes on to explain that during the episode, “a person is in a state where they are half awake and half asleep; sometimes they are able to open their eyes, but they’re aware they can’t move.”
Sleep paralysis occurs during the REM (rapid eye movement) period of sleep. There are five stages of sleep, during the first four your brain and heart rates slow down.
Then you enter a period of REM sleep – the fifth stage – where your brain is active and you experience-vivid dreams.
“During this time the muscles are temporarily paralysed, probably as a protective mechanism to stop the sleeper acting out their dreams,” says Professor French, a leading UK authority on the subject.
Five percent of the sufferers of the disorder are reported to visualise non-existent objects like shadows or have horrific hallucinations during the episode. Monstrous figures can be seen or someone or something can be sensed in the room. Other people report movement such as being dragged from the bed, or being touched.
It leads me to wonder about the possible sexual encounters people apparently have with unknown creatures in the night. Creatures which disappear thereafter and visit occasionally at night for another installment of sex! Is it real cause or is it SP at its best?
The disorder is said to have various possible causes like stress, alcohol, caffeine, jet lag, and anything else that disrupts the sleep cycle, including certain medications.
However, irregular sleeping schedules or your sleep position may also trigger an episode.
“Another risk factor is sleeping on one’s back, because this is associated with sleep apnea (a condition which causes interruptions in breathing during sleep), which may be linked to SP,” according to another scientific site on sleep.
Having to go through an episode of SP is frightening. And though some people might know what is going on, and others might not, sufferers have been advised to be calm and breathe in a calm way while trying to move the smallest parts of their bodies such as a toe, finger or eye lid. Some, however, prefer to just let it pass naturally without panicking. Another way would be to arrange with a partner to wake you up should they hear you make strange noises at night, this will jolt you out of the episode.
Whereas there is no cure yet for the disorder, it appears that one does not have to fear and think they are being abducted by aliens or being attacked by spirits or anything of that sort; it should also help to realise that they are not alone as a legion of other people around the world experience the disorder.
The online site says that treatment starts with patient education about sleep stages and about the muscle atonia that is typically associated with REM sleep.
It says that for most healthy individuals, avoiding chronic sleep deprivation is enough to relieve symptoms and recommends that, should the problem persist, patients be evaluated for narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness in which a person experiences extreme fatigue and possibly falls asleep at inappropriate times, such as while at work or at school.
“The Chinese doctor told me to drink a lot of water,” said my workmate forlornly. “She said I must avoid tea or coffee after 6pm and suggested a warm bath before bed if that helps to relax me. I was also advised to put 2-3 drops of lavender oil on the pillow case I use.”