Why I Am No Longer Terrified of Sleep Paralysis

August 3rd 2015

Brigida Santos

My experience with sleep paralysis begins as a six-year-old.

I wake up in the dead of night only to find his dark shadow hovering over me again. His presence is hypnotic, terrifying and mysterious. I never know what he wants because he never speaks. He only stares. Sometimes he stands over me, but tonight, he is behind my pillow, breathing down my neck. The energy radiating off his body tickles my neck and sends me into a panic—but I can’t move. I am paralyzed.

I am mentally aware that I am awake and asleep at the same time. It feels as if my soul and body have been split in two like an atom. The dreamer version of me dreams that my “spirit” floats out of my physical body. It hovers from the ceiling and looks down on my actual physical body, which is where my consciousness lies paralyzed in bed. I yell, or at least I yell in my head since no words or sounds come out. I mentally order my arms and legs to get up. Move. But my body is so heavy it is incapable of physically responding. An electromagnetic force field has glued my limbs in place on the mattress.

Now, I am 30 years old. This shadow being will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life. Sometimes he returns several nights in a row and sometimes he vanishes for months or even years at a time. But every time I think he has finally gone back into the depths of wherever he came from, he reminds me. He will never leave me alone. But now I am no longer afraid.

Identifying sleep paralysis

I never knew sleep paralysis was a real condition. I only thought I suffered from odd nightmares and considered it normal until I came across a book called, “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” by science writer Sam Kean. The book delves into the history of the human brain as revealed by true stories of trauma, madness and recovery.

After reading the introduction, I was hooked. Kean explained in the first paragraph that he also suffers from sleep paralysis and that many other people do too. In fact, according to his research, “one poor woman in England has been declared dead three times and once woke up in the morgue.”

He wrote that the unluckiest sufferers of sleep paralysis, “perceive an evil presence--a witch, demon, or incubus--pressing down on their necks, smothering them,” or that they are being probed by aliens. I have definitely perceived an evil presence and felt my airway being cut off in the past. The creative writer in me played with the idea that something paranormal was happening, perhaps a ghost or demon was trying to takeover my body. But the rational part of me knew that medicine and science could probably explain what this condition was.

So what exactly is sleep paralysis?

Here’s what Sam Kean explains:

  • Sleep paralysis is a natural by-product of how our brains work, in particular, of faulty communication among the three major parts of the human brain.
  • These parts are known as the reptilian brain (the base, which controls breathing and heart rate), the mammalian brain (the middle, which controls sensory and limbic systems, memories, emotions), and primate brain (outermost part, which controls advanced duties like decisions, language, recognition).


To summarize Kean’s book, deep inside the reptilian brain sits the pons, which initiates dreaming. The pons sends a message to the spinal cord, which then produces chemicals that make your muscles flaccid so you won’t act out your nightmares and flee the room, or swing at your bedmate. “While mostly protective,” he writes, “this immobility sometimes backfires.”

This means, “the brain has to order the pons to stop paralyzing your muscles,” so you can get oxygen while you dream. “For whatever reason--a chemical imbalance, a frayed neural wire--the pons doesn’t always obey.” This is when things get weird for the dreamer. “If this limbo persists, the mind wakes up fully and sensing something is amiss, trips a circuit that includes the amygdala, a structure in the mammal brain that amplifies fear. A fight or flight response wells up, which exacerbates the problem, since you can’t do either.”

Because the dreamer is still asleep, the brain keeps on creating hallucinations.

In my case, those hallucinations included that shadow man and an out-of-body experience. BuzzFeed reports that, “unlike the visuals in nightmares or lucid dreams, which occur when the eyes are closed in REM sleep, these hallucinations occur in the state between sleeping and waking when the mind is alert and the eyes are open... many patients report feeling an undeniably strange or scary presence in the room.”

Is there a treatment to cure sleep paralysis?

The Sleep Paralysis Project recommends establishing regular sleeping habits and avoiding alcohol or caffeine before bed—these factors have been shown to disrupt the sleep cycle. You can also sleep on your back and be mindful that taking sleeping pills can induce sleep paralysis. 

Getting rest, however, has proven most important. Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told BuzzFeed Life, “research has consistently shown that the less sleep you get and the more exhausted you are, the more likely you are to experience sleep paralysis and other sleep disorders.”

Sleep paralysis reportedly affects only 7.6 percent of the population. As part of that 7.6 percent I can tell you that once you understand what’s going on with your body, the fear will lessen and you can actually learn how to have really cool lucid dreams.