It used to be known as 'The Hag Syndrome'. It is possibly the origin of the incubus and succubus legends. Cultures around the world have names for it. In Scandinavian mythology it is caused by the 'Mare' or 'Mara' who is also responsible for the experience of 'nightmares'. It creates panic and terror in the sleeper and it is estimated that as many as 80 percent of us will experience it at some point in our lives.
Today, it is commonly called 'sleep paralyis'. The form it takes is varied--it is sometimes described as being awake but unable to move, or feeling that someone or something is holding one down, or feeling that there is a presence sitting on one's chest. These sensations are vividly experienced: oftentimes the sufferer of the phenomenon can still feel the sensation physically even after waking up and coming to full consciousness.
One interesting theory regarding sleep paralysis is the theory that it is a chemical malfunction. During REM sleep, the body produces a chemical which induces a sort of physical paralysis. This is done because the mind does not realize it is sleeping. If we were not in a state of paralysis while dreaming, we would attempt to act out our dreams. In sleep paralysis, the mind exits the REM sleep stage before the chemical wears off, producing a momentary effect of paralysis.
Other theories of sleep paralyis involve more metaphysical explanations. Some people believe that when we sleep we are actually involved in 'astral travel' or we are having 'OBEs'--'out of body experiences'. This basic premise here is that while we are asleep, our souls leave our bodies and travel to other realms or dimensions. While our soul is out of the body it is possible for something in waking life to bring the body to consciousness but without our 'selves' there to man the ship.
Another explanation is that of 'The Sensed Presence', something very clearly described in 'Moby Dick'. This theory revolves around the premise that our left brain and right brain become momentarily out of synch, with the right brain taking over. As the right brain speaks in symbols and sensation rather than words, it produces images of 'hooded figures' or other non-verbal figures to give us an impression of itself. Todd Murphy has a fascinating article on 'The Sensed Presence'at: http://www.shaktitechnology.com/sp.htm
What brings on sleep paralysis? Stress, changes in lifestyle, sleep deprivation, and some sleeping meds can induce episodes of sleep paralysis. Ironically, sleep paralyis may actually be an attempt to experience lucid dreaming or a lucid dream may be a precursor to an episode. Some people actually attempt to induce sleep paralysis in order to experience lucid dreams!
When having an attack of sleep paralysis, attempt to remain calm and try not to fight against the sensation. Instead of trying to get up out of bed, try making small movements such as wiggling your fingers or toes or try simply moving your eyes back and forth.
What can be done to alleviate sleep paralysis? If you are having prolonged episodes, such as those that occur weekly for a period of six months, medication may be prescribed. Even if you are not having these events that frequently, if the condition is chronic, discussing the problem with your doctor is advised.
For those of us who have the problem intermittently attacks are often alleviated by: sleeping face down, keeping regular sleeping schedules (not napping or sleeping in), exercising regularly during the day--well before bedtime, and using stress reduction techniques. For more information on this intriguing phenomenon check out the links below.
As always, sleep well and dream out loud!
*~Aisling Ireland~* is an ordained Spiritual Counselor providing dream interpretation and Tarot readings. To make an appointment check out her website at:
Below is a great book that looks at sleep paralysis and its appearance through history and mythology.