I wake up paralyzed in a living nightmare. That’s what it’s like to have sleep paralysis.

My first episode is in 2012. I’m in the first semester of my freshman year. My schedule consists of classes, catching up on long reading assignments, trying to socialize, getting used to a new city, and falling into deep sleep the minute my head hits the pillow.

On those typical nights, I rarely woke up until morning. But “typical” came out the window the night I woke up to the sound of bloodcurdling screams.

Lying on my stomach, my face half buried in a pillow, my body went into a state of alert. Get up! Run!” my instincts were screaming, but my body was refusing to heed it. So instead, I was left paralyzed. My eyes were the only part of me capable of movement and provided narrow vision half constricted by the pillow.

My gaze fell on a dark corner of the room where a shadowy presence soon revealed itself. Then a second figure appeared. And then a third. My breathing became erratic as I struggled to move, to do something. As the faceless shadows drew closer, the screams grew louder…until I passed out.

I woke up in the morning exhausted and disturbed, with only one thought in mind: What kind of dream was it? I had had disturbing nightmares before, the kind that made you wake up in a sweat, but I had never experienced one so visually and physically distressing.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone about it, fearing it would be dismissed as just a nightmare or make me the butt of a joke. I googled “asleep can’t move bad dream” and learned a new term: sleep paralysis.

I scoured every medical blog that appeared on Google – WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Sleep Foundation, NHS, Healthline, etc. – and that’s what I learned.

Sleep paralysis is a kind of parasomnia where the brain wakes up before the body. This happens when you wake up during your REM cycle. This is when you dream and your body goes into temporary paralysis to prevent you from physically fulfilling your dreams. And because you’re dreaming, it can lead to visual, auditory and sensory hallucinations – often a waking nightmare.

There is no definitive cause for this, but research shows it is more likely to occur if you have insomnia, narcolepsy, general anxiety disorder, have a family history, or you have bad sleeping habits.

And there is no over-the-counter remedy; all you can really control are “bad sleep habits”. So I took care of the next few weeks. I kept a routine and tried to get “good sleep”, and soon it was just a distant memory.

Over the next few years, I would wake up paralyzed from time to time. But that would be just that – paralysis. No screams, no silhouettes, no terror gripping me. I had read that while sleep paralysis can be common, the accompanying hallucinations are mostly a single event. Just understanding what is happening to you goes a long way in keeping you grounded.

Trying to force myself to wake up in the moment was futile (for me), so when it happened, I slowed my breathing, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. I discovered that I fell into sleep paralysis more often if I fell asleep on my back, so I avoided what I could and resigned myself to a life of infrequent but uncomfortable sleep paralysis.

Until one night I woke up with a heavy weight on my chest and the feeling of a band tightening around my throat; at that time I remembered Henry Fuseli”The nightmarea painting I had discovered while reading about sleep paralysis.

Maybe seeing it once made me manifest it but, much like in the painting, I was sure a demon was sitting on my chest, happily trying to choke me. And this time, I couldn’t fall asleep peacefully. Somehow, out of sheer force of will, I forced my arm up and brushed away whatever was choking me. My arm raked the empty air, and this simple gesture gave me immediate relief.

This hallucination, according to the Sleep Foundation, was an incubus, one of three common categories of sleep paralysis hallucinations. With incubus hallucinations, you feel pressure in your chest and have difficulty breathing. The other two types are “intruder” (a threatening presence heard or felt) and “vestibular-motor” (somewhat astral, like spinning, floating, or falling; an out-of-body experience).

Ask me in daylight, and I’ll say it happened because of a cocktail of stress, irregular sleep, and anxiety mixed with an imagination injected with a healthy dose of TV horror.

But ask me in the pitch dark, when I’m lying alone in my bedroom, afraid to let a hand or foot dangle from the edge of my bed, and my answer might lean toward the supernatural.

After all, with the little research that has been done in this area and the prevalence of creepy nocturnal horror stories, it’s easy to see how this phenomenon can be pinned on a supernatural entity.

Because while “sleep paralysis” is the most commonly used term, it is known as or a follower (to be eaten by a demon) in Fiji. In Thailand, a ghost from Thai folklore, Phi Am, is believed to be responsible. In Italy people blame the Pandafeche, an evil witch, while in Egypt a jinn is to blame – all feature some variation of attack from a demon or witch.

I don’t know which belief is less comforting – that an unknown force is holding you hostage or that your brain can rob you of your ability to move and speak? Especially from the comfort of your own bed.

Either way, there is no cure. At least not one that has been found. The nature of sleep paralysis has not warranted enough research interest as it poses no threat or lasting harm, despite feeling like a real nightmare.

Sometimes I spend my nights scared to sleep, mentally exhausted rather than sitting around thinking about what I might experience falling asleep. As my experiences with sleep paralysis have continued over the years, I have found that they are more related to periods of poor mental health than poor rest, but I still have no real control over them. and I had quite a few moments of healing.

And since nothing can totally protect you from an episode, I’ve learned to embrace the uncomfortable moments of waking up motionless (even the scariest ones) — hoping that by simply believing it’s just my brain who is responsible, I can doze off again and wake up without a nightmare.

Sana Panjwani is a freelance journalist and editor based in Dubai. She enjoys writing about weird science, pop culture, and career trends. You can find his work in Refinery29, The Financial Diet, gal-dem, Expensive Introvert and now Huffington Post (many others) ! Find her on Instagram & Twitter: @sanapanjwan 1

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