Saskatoon·Point of View

'My living nightmare': Making sense of my sleep paralysis

University of Waterloo professor emeritus Allan Cheyne says about one-third of the population will experience a mild form of sleep paralysis at one point in their lives. Less than 10 percent of people will get recurrent vivid bouts.

It felt as though someone or something was crawling up my body

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli ,1781. (Wikimedia Commons)

I was about seven or eight years old when I experienced my first episode of sleep paralysis.

It would always happen the same way. I would be dreaming and then all of a sudden I would be awake. But not fully awake.

That's when I felt it. In that dream limbo.

The initial pressure would begin on my legs. It felt as though someone or something was crawling up my body.

This presence would then push down on my chest, making it hard to breathe.

I would try my best to react — to kick, punch, scream — but nothing happened. I was paralyzed.

At times I would be able to open my eyes, but I couldn't focus. All I could see was a shadowed figure. Sometimes it would remain still, hovering above me. During the worst times, it would bend down and whisper into my ear.

This ordeal — although it felt like hours — would last for about a minute before my body would respond and, just like that, my living nightmare would be over.

Family connection

When I was 24, I experienced a really frightening sleep paralysis episode while I was living abroad.

I immediately called my parents, needing some kind of reassurance. To my surprise, they believed me.

They began telling me about their own experiences. They were shockingly similar to mine. 

That was the last time I remember talking about it. It wasn't until last week, seven years later, that the topic arose again.

I had been binge watching the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. In it, one of the main characters faced terrifying episodes of sleep paralysis, so I had the topic fresh in my mind when my brother called.

"Have we never talked about this before?" Chris asked when I brought it up.

We hadn't.

Shadowed figure appears

Like me, Chris's first episode took place in our childhood home in Saskatoon.

"I remember falling kind of half asleep, waking up and not being able to move at all," he said.

That's when the whispers started and a faceless, shadowed figure appeared.

"I saw that figure heading toward your room so I got really scared," Chris said to me.  

After a moment of panic and struggling through the temporary paralysis, his body responded.

"I ran to your room to see if you were OK, and I remember standing by your bedroom door just watching to see if you were still breathing," he said.

After a while, he reasoned he had just experienced a bad nightmare and went back to sleep.

This took place around the same time I first experienced sleep paralysis.

At times, I would see a shadowed figure. Sometimes, it would lean in and whisper in my ear. (William Mumler)

'It is a REM phenomena'

For years, like my brother, I would identify these episodes as a bad nightmare. I thought it was something everyone experienced.

According to University of Waterloo professor emeritus Allan Cheyne, about one-third of the population has experienced or will experience a mild form of sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. Less than 10 percent of people will get the vivid, recurring bouts.

"It is a REM [rapid eye movement] phenomena that tends to occur often just at the edge of sleep and waking," Cheyne, who studied sleep paralysis for over 20 years, said.

He said that during REM sleep, people experience paralysis because the body is trying to refrain itself from acting out dreams. The subsequent imagery and hallucinations are an attempt by the brain to create a narrative explaining the unusual bodily sensations that takes place during the disrupted REM cycle.

"I suspect it's not so much those images that are causing the terror, rather the terror is a spontaneous reaction to your physiological state," Cheyne noted.

Was it strange that my family all experienced very vivid sleep paralysis episodes?

Cheyne said he has witnessed sleep paralysis running in families, but it's tough to know for sure because there is little systematic research done on a genetic link.

On the plus side, Cheyne said there are benefits to being the few who consistently experience sleep paralysis. He said with some research and concentration, there is a way the episodes can act as a portal to lucid dreaming.

I'll let you know how that goes.

About the Author

Victoria Dinh

CBC Saskatoon reporter

Victoria Dinh is a journalist with CBC Saskatoon. She is also a co-host, writer and producer of the CBC investigative podcast, The Pit. Get in touch with Victoria by emailing victoria.dinh@cbc.ca

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