Lately, when I go back to sleep after waking up, I have terrifying lucid dreams.
They’re vivid and I feel like I’m stuck and won’t ever escape. A few times, I’ve convinced myself I’m actually dead and will be trapped in a dream for eternity. I wake up covered in sweat, wanting to never go to sleep again.
But yesterday morning was different.
My alarm went off and, as usual, I reset it to give myself an extra 15 minutes sleep. What followed was my familiar experience of being trapped and desperately wanting to wake up. But then I did.
I was laying on my side in bed, so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open, when I heard someone open my front door. I knew I was home alone, so I had no idea who it could be. I was so exhausted I couldn’t move, and then I saw a man walk into my bedroom. He walked straight past my line of sight, until he was out of view. I expected to be attacked. This man was surely going to hurt me, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move.
I’m not sure how much time passed before I actually woke up. I looked to my right expecting someone to be there. But no one was.
What I had experienced was sleep paralysis – a feeling of being conscious without being able to speak or move. Historically, it’s been described as sensing an ‘evil’ presence, and many people report seeing demons or an intruder.
Dr Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and expert in sleep medicine, told BuzzFeed, "most patients say... it feels like you woke up dead".
"You know that your mind is awake and your body is not — so you're trapped, essentially."
When we sleep, we alternate between REM sleep and NREM (non-REM) sleep. During REM sleep, our body goes into a state of atonia - essentially paralysing the muscles. Our body does this so we won't physically act out our dreams, which we are quite literally 'seeing' via our visual cortex. During sleep paralysis, our brain awakens while our body remains paralysed. We're still transitioning from deep REM sleep, and therefore can experience a certain type of hallucination.