Why You See Terrifying Figures During Sleep Paralysis

May 25th 2017

It's almost universal: people who experience sleep paralysis commonly see or sense a menacing entity lurking in their room.

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The phenomenon is part of what makes sleep paralysis – a disruption in your sleep cycle that leaves you awake but physically paralyzed while your brain remains fixed in a dream state – so terrifying.

But why does it happen?

To answer that question, you have to understand how sleep paralysis works. There are five stages of sleep, and sleep paralysis is the product of a malfunction during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, which is when dreaming takes place. To prevent you from acting out your dreams and injuring yourself, the brain paralyzes the body during REM sleep.

Waking up paralyzed in a dream state confuses the brain and frightens the dreamer.

"Usually the first thing that happens is you might sense some presence in the room with you," sleep paralysis expert Brian Sharpless, whose book "Unusual and Rare Psychological Disorders" breaks down the process, told ATTN:. "It's kind of like walking down a dark alley and you feel like you're being watch[ed] — that uncanny feeling where you feel like you're vulnerable."

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Because that sense of vulnerability occurs as you're dreaming, the brain attempts to organize that experience "into a figure to help explain where the threat is coming from," he said. "Obviously you're not going to experience some cute teddy bear. You're going to organize it using the constructs available to you," he added. 

What you hallucinate depends on your individual and cultural background. If you come from a deeply religious background, maybe you see a demon; if you're a millennial in the U.S., maybe it's a shadow person; if you're President Donald Trump, maybe it's James Comey or an IRS agent.

If you're experiencing sleep paralysis, how do you ward off the imaginary demon?

There's no foolproof way to dispose of your nightmarish intruder, but research has uncovered methods to reduce the terror and make sleep paralysis end quicker. Sharpless said the "best thing you can do is to, in those moments, recognize that you're not being attacked by a demon, but you're experiencing a natural variation of the human sleep cycle."

"Sleep is super complicated and there's a lot that can go wrong, and sleep paralysis is one of the ways it can go wrong," he said. "Telling yourself it's just something your mind is creating — it's not actually there — is helpful."

Other tips: focus your attention on a specific part of your body such as your toe or nose and try to move it; sleep on your side; maintain healthy and consistent sleep habits; and avoid drinking alcohol before bed.

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