Sleep paralysis- the awaking nightmare
when Mpo Senkuta, a Windhoek resident opened his eyes one morning to awaken, he realized he could not move his body.
His mind was wide awake, but his body had lost mobility and he could not get himself out of bed, no matter how much force he applied.
His attempts to scream for help went unheard as he found that he could neither open his mouth nor utter a word.
Terrified and helpless, he screamed inwardly, hoping someone would hear his silent cry for help and shake him back to consciousness.
Sankuta could hear the voices of his family in the room next door and was aware of his surroundings, but his body felt numb and “paralyzed”.
“I felt like an unseen force was weighing me down. I could not move my limbs or muscles, yet, I was wide awake,” Senkuta explains the strange phenomenon.
He says during this horrifying ordeal, he vividly remembers seeing a strange doll floating in front of him.
“It was a handmade doll of twigs and clothed in white linen. It floated past me and then disappeared after I prayed inwardly,” he says.
Senkuta was experiencing an episode of what is known as sleep paralysis. For many people, it can be a very terrifying experience.
Many people have reported cases of sleep paralysis at some point in their lives, and some have had re-occurrences of this sleep disorder.
Perhaps the strangest experience yet, was one of Ivan Nandu, who in 2009, remembers an experience that left not only him, but his family baffled.
“I was about to fall asleep one night, when I saw this dark, evil but human figure before me. I got the feeling that I was being forced into falling asleep because I tried waking-up but I could not. The whole experience gave me goose bumps and for some reason, I could not move my body,” he recalls. Nandu says the figure jumped on him and attempted to strike him on the forehead, but missed.
“After a long struggle, I managed to break free and woke up, but to my surprise, I noticed that the spot on my forehead where the strange being attempted to strike appeared sunken in, as if it was pressed inwardly. My entire body felt weak and I didn’t understand what was happening to me, but I went back to sleep,” he said.
He said the next day when he woke-up, his father noticed the dimple on his forehead and asked him what happen. To this day, Nandu cannot explain what happen to him that night, or the mysterious dimple on his forehead which has since disappeared.
For another victim, Sara Malakia, the experience left her terrified, fearing she was bewitched or that a “tokoloshe” had paid her an un-welcomed visit.
“I was about to wake-up and suddenly I felt like someone was sitting on top of me. I was sleeping next to my aunt that day and when I tried screaming and lifting my hands or legs, I could not move an inch,” she relates.
Malakia says that in the past, she attributed her experiences to witchcraft but then recounted that she only seemed to have these strange experiences whenever she was sleeping on her back. Like Malakia, some people attribute these experiences to spirituality, believing they had an attack from a demon or were visited by ghosts.
In Africa and countries like India and China, sleep paralysis is often associated with evil spiritual encounters or witchcraft.
According to web.MD.com, over the centuries, symptoms of sleep paralysis have been described in many ways and often attributed to an “evil” presence: unseen night demons in ancient times, the old hag in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and alien abductors.
Almost every culture throughout history has had stories of shadowy evil creatures that terrify helpless humans at night. People have long sought explanations for this mysterious sleep-time paralysis and the accompanying feelings of terror.
Doctor Joab Mudzanapabwe, a Windhoek-based Clinical Psychologist explains that sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where people experience inability to move muscles, also known as weakness of muscle atonia, either when attempting to sleep (hypnagogic) or when attempting to wake-up (hypnopompic). This experience happens when the mind is awake but the body is still asleep.
“People may experience sleep paralysis when either attempting to fall asleep or attempting to wake-up during rapid-eye movement (REM),” he says.
He says the reason many people seem to hear and see things while experiencing sleep paralysis is because they are in a state of panic.
“When an individual experiences sleep paralysis during predormita (before falling asleep) or postdormita (after falling asleep), they may be overcome with anxiety or fear. This anxiety triggers a desperate feeling of wanting to escape or to break-free because the individual feels trapped when unable to move,” he says.
He explains that this feeling of wanting to escape is what sometimes brings about hallucinations because they begin to imagine that something or someone is closing in on them, usually associated with an evil presence in the room. “The entire experience usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes, although it may seem longer to the individual experiencing it,” he explains.
In rare cases, Mudzanapabwe says some people’s experiences may last an hour, but this is often due to an underlying cause of other medical sleep disorders.
“In this case, the individual may experience what is known as recurrent isolated sleep paralysis where they experience episodes of sleep paralysis frequently,” he says.
In normal populations, he says, only about 6% of people experience these episodes and the majority of those who do may only experience it once in their lifetime and may never recall having such an experience.
Mudzanapabwe states although the individuals often feel as if they might die during these horrifying experiences, he says there are no known cases of people who have died in their sleep due to sleep paralysis.
“Sleep paralysis is not fatal, it only triggers fear and panic. People who die in their sleep sometimes die from other serious causes like sleep apnea, which is the blockage of the airways to the lungs, but only in rare cases” he says.
He explains that people who experience constant sleep paralysis are usually those that have narcolepsy, a neurological sleep disorder known to disrupt normal sleep/wake cycles in the brain.
“Patients with this condition often experience abnormal day-time sleep patterns that can occur at any time of the day, even while they are at work or in the middle of a conversation, just to wake-up a minute later,” he says.
Other causes of sleep paralysis can be brought on by sleep deprivation such as insomnia due to hectic work schedules, or in the case of Malakia, sleeping in a supine position (sleeping on the back). “When sleeping on your back, the airways collapse in limiting air intake to the lungs and you may feel suffocated,” he explains, while advising that people should sleep on their sides to reduce episodes of sleep paralysis.
He says overuse of stimulants like medications and energy drinks such as Red-Bull that treat Attention Deficient Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) can also trigger episodes of sleep paralysis, but sometimes the condition cannot be avoided as it can run in the family. “Some cases are genetic; you will find that two or more family members keep having the same experiences. In this case, it is a genetic condition,” he says.