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  • Writer's pictureMarica Binns


Did that tempt you to read further?  

Well to be honest I didn’t really meet a ghost (shucks) but I did encounter something equally as frightening and I wonder if you have ever done too?

I’m talking about a little-known phenomenon called SLEEP PARALYSIS.

So, have you ever woken from sleep (or been drifting off to sleep) when you suddenly find yourself with the inability to move or speak, your body is actually paralysed?  It seems like an age but really its probably less than a minute. Your brain is awake but your body won’t move, yet you are completely aware of your surroundings.

Along with that, many people feel as though there is a harmful, frightening presence in the room with them, something (or someone) they often cannot see but can hear them breathe or just simply ‘feel’ them.   For me, and for quite a few other unlucky buggers, we feel as though there is something pressing down on our chests making it hard to breathe.

For me, I am unable to open my eyes but others tell me they can, and on one occasion it felt as though someone was pulling the bed clothes off me from the bottom of the bed.  I had a patient who told me about seeing a shadowy figure walking by their bedside, and another who distinctly heard a raspy voice whispering in their ear.

I can tell that by now, I may have lost a few of you who are thinking she’s talking that kind of shit chat that comes out at 3am after binging on magic mushroom tea…… no really.. please do stick with me……

So what causes this distressing phenomenon?  Because it is REALLY VERY REAL!  THIS SHIT ACTUALLY DOES HAPPEN – you are not imagining it.

Well I guess you’ll have heard about REM sleep – the time in your sleep pattern that causes you to have rapid eye movements?   Simply put, it’s where the brain is very active and is when dreams often occur.  As you sleep during REM, your body is unable to move, its essentially paralysed apart from the eyes and the muscles used in breathing (they have to continue working or you’d be dead!)  Scientists believe our body becomes paralysed to protect us, so we don’t jump up during dream state and hurt ourselves.  Now this is the interesting bit……… seemingly we can have REM whilst we are awake – which is when sleep paralysis happens.  Because we are just awaking from sleep and the brain is awake a few seconds before our bodies have woken up, this is when this experience can happen.

Despite doing my research into this fascinating stuff, I don’t think the boffins yet know why  REM occurs when we are awake, but they do associate it with not getting enough sleep, irregular sleep patterns like shift work etc, sleeping on your back, and following a life trauma or at times of stress.    For me, I have had five episodes of sleep paralysis and in three of those occasions it happened a few days after undergoing surgery with anaesthetic.

It is incredibly frightening if its your first or second time of it happening.   I was in my mid twenties the first time it happened, and that was when I experienced the sensation of someone in my bedroom pulling my bedclothes from the bottom of the bed, and I couldn’t scream or move to pull them back up.  It seemed like a lifetime but it was only a minute or so, and then I was completely awake, able to move and there was nothing in my room at all.  Because I didn’t know about sleep paralysis then, I believed it was the ghost of my auntie who had died recently, and I believed I’d actually had a visitation.  Scared the f***in shit out of me I can tell you!

The second time was some ten years or so later.  I’d been incredibly poorly with viral meningitis, and when I came home from hospital a few weeks later, my first night in my own bed gave me the same terrifying experience!   Again I thought I had been visited by some presence but this time it felt evil.    As I awoke, unable to move or speak, I felt something jump on the bed and then onto my chest, pinning me beneath it.  A few seconds later it was gone, I could move my body and I was fully awake. The ‘it’ seemed to me to be like a small gremlin creature, which I couldn’t see but I was convinced I could hear it breathing.    That said I never actually saw anything, unlike my friend Jean who has had the misfortune of regularly awaking, paralysed with fear and can actually see a demon-like presence in her bedroom doorway. 

So after the second experience, and with no internet in those days, I trawled my way around a book shop in Haworth seeking out an explanation.   I think I had the makings of a therapist even back then because I chose not to look in the ‘ghost/horror’ section of the bookshelves, but recognised this as a phenomenon that threw my body out of kilter and then within a minute returned it to normal.  I thought it was much more than a ghost story and believing it to be something clinical within my brain,  I found a book which explained beautifully the phenomena of sleep paralysis.  At last I had my answers.

When I eventually became a therapist and started working at Overgate Hospice, I put a poster up asking for any of the staff to come forward and talk to me if they too had suffered an experience like this.   I had three people come to me and we compared stories, all similar.  They, like me, were mightily relieved to find out they hadn’t been visited by a ghost. 

Many years later, I did have one client who described her experience in graphic gory detail, and it was unlike any other story I had heard.   She absolutely believed she was visited from time to time by a sinister ghost in medieval clothing entwined in heavy rattling chains who stood at her bedside and watched her whilst she desperately tried to breathe of speak.  She felt sure she had problems with her brain and feared a potential stroke, as she couldn’t give any other explanation for her paralysed body. She was mightily relieved when I was able to tell her to ‘google’ it and she found out she wasn’t having a seizure or going mad.

In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off, or a very occasional event that occurs in someone who is otherwise healthy.  Many people have this once or twice in their life whilst others have it more regularly.  Most people will never experience it.  It affects anyone of any age, and when it is over, you’ll be able to move and speak normally, although if you’re like me when I didn’t know what was going on, you’ll feel anxious for a long time to come. 

The last time it happened to me was 2007 following a simple but painful clinical procedure. When I got back home to my own bed from being in hospital, it occurred.  Because I knew exactly what was happening, I wasn’t afraid.  It has never happened since…touch wood.

There is no treatment but its thought that improving your sleeping habits over time will help if you suffer this regularly. Creating a sleeping environment thats comfortable is good and avoiding big meals before bed time will always be in your favour.

So my friends, if you’ve never experienced this then I shall refrain from saying “jog on” as you never know if your turn is yet to come; but if you have, then please make it in your way to research online so the next time you will be much less afraid.  Just knowing this is a harmless phenomena which has been happening to people since time began is helpful in removing fear. There are many sites which will lead you to stories and clinical explanations on SLEEP PARALYSIS and if you are a fellow sufferer, I urge you to get in touch with me and tell me about your experiences.  I really would love to know how many of you out there have the misfortune to ‘walk with the demons’ too.  Just send me a message on here or via my website… I’d love to hear from you.  I’m a nosey old devil but if we share a phenomena then why not?

Best wishes to you all and as Nick Ross used to say on Crimewatch…. “Don’t have nightmares”

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