When I was a kid, I used to suffer from what my pediatrician called “sleep paralysis.” It always happened during that twilight period of falling asleep or waking up, both at night and during afternoon naps. The experience was quite frightening; not only was my body completely paralyzed, but there was the sensation of being slowly suffocated to death with a pillow. To make matters worse, the sleep paralysis was often accompanied by voices, voices belonging to members of my family who should have been saving me from suffocation instead of yakking away about nothing.
When I finally manage to break away and wake myself up, it was usually to an empty house with no one around. And the conversations in the next room? Some of them would eventually take place, but at some point in the future. It wasn’t until adulthood, that I discovered it wasn’t merely sleep paralysis dogging me at night, but something called “Hypnogogia.”
What is Hypnogogia?
Hypnogogia is described as a dream like experience, accompanied by full body paralysis and hallucinations that can be either by touch, sight, or sound. Hypnogogia is also characterized by a crushing pressure on the chest and difficulty in breathing. It’s such a peculiar form of sleep disorder that people generally don’t discuss it with their physicians. And can you blame us? Sleeping paralysis is one thing, but trying to explain visions of ghosts, aliens, and family conversations that hadn’t happened yet is a whole other thing entirely.
And yet, hypnogogia isn’t that terribly uncommon. Experts estimate that 30-40% of the population experiences some level of hypnogogia, with 5% having intense experiences such as the ones I’ve had to live with.
The explanation behind hypnogogia is pretty simple. During REM sleep, the brain blocks the signals to the body that make us move. This is what keeps us rolling out of bed and running around in our sleep. But, when we enter REM sleep too quickly, those limbs shut down while part of the brain is still semi-conscious. This causes the paralysis and those crazy dreamlike images that terrify us so much. In the morning, the reverse happens; our minds wake up ahead of our brains and while it may seem like we are conscious, the rest of the body isn’t.
My hypnogogic episodes happen at least once a month, during times when there is a great deal of anxiety or tension in my life. It begins with a sensation of drifting, followed by sudden paralysis. By breathing calmly, and recognizing that my body is in a trance-like state, the hallucinatory experience can be sustained for quite some time. Eventually though, panic does seem to kick in and I struggle to arouse myself out of the hallucination.
The paranormal connection
Those who study the paranormal see hypnogogia as an opportunity when ghosts and other spirits can make contact with people on earth. There’s certainly been plenty of reports of people claiming to have seen spirits during these episodes; while most of the spirits have been friendly, others apparently are quite malevolent.
Others experience paranormal activity such as extra sensory perception, visions, telepathy, and even out of body experiences.
As for myself, the hallucinations take the form of auras and shapes which I sense are connected to my immediate family and close friends, something that seems like an energy source. The experience is not at all frightening at first; in fact, my first instinct is that visitors have dropped in, and they’re just talking away while I’m finishing my nap. The conversations are quite clear, and are usually about family related issues, neighborhood gossip, that sort of thing. Eventually a feeling of dread does set in, a sensation that something is not quite right and my body instinctively begins to fight the paralysis.
I would chalk this up to dreams and an active imagination except for one thing. When I call my parents or siblings to share my latest experience with paranormal eavesdropping, it usually turns out that they had just finished the conversation I had overhead.
How to stay calm and get yourself awakened
The important thing to remember in hypnogogia, is to stay calm and remind yourself that it’s only a hallucination. Panicking seems to make breathing more difficult and strained; it’s much better to force yourself to breath slow, deep breathes while trying to wake yourself up.
No matter how paralyzed you are, there’s always a toe or finger than can be wiggled. Eventually you’ll be able to move the entire hand or the foot, which is enough to bring most people out of an episode. If you share a bed with someone, an even better solution is to ask your partner to wake you up if it seems you’re having a nightmare. Most people still can manage a strangled scream of sorts; it may sound like a scream from your end, but what your partner will hear is a grunt or soft whinny. A couple of whinnies from me, is all the signal my husband needs to shake me back to consciousness.
I’ve reached the point where my hypnogogia experiences aren’t quite as frightening as they used to be. In fact, some of the hallucinations are rather interesting and enlightening. I’ve even learned to keep a notepad by my bed to record these disembodied conversations, hoping one day to overhear something really juicy instead of fertilizer and tractor tire discussions. Unfortunately, with my luck I’d probably whinny at the wrong time and miss out on the greatest racetrack tip of all time.