I’m not really the type of person who has nightmares… but on the occasions that I do, they have one thing in common: I struggle to wake up, I’m gasping for breath, and I’m lying on my back. So I started to wonder – am I imagining things, or is this a real thing?
It didn’t take much research to find that, yes, this is a real thing. The phenomenon in question is called sleep paralysis, which is a terrifying night-time state in which the brain begins to wake up before the body. The science behind sleep paralysis posits that, while asleep, the body both shuts down the active mind and paralyzes the muscles so that the person doesn’t move around while sleeping. Of course, sometimes this goes awry. If the muscles start moving around without the brain waking up, you get sleepwalking. If the brain wakes up without the muscles, you get sleep paralysis.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Sleep paralysis is commonly associated with terrifying visions or the feeling that there is a person or being in the room. Throughout history and all around the globe, human cultures are replete with references to this feeling of being paralyzed while attacked by some sort of intruder. In many English-speaking countries, it’s called “being ridden by the witch” or “ridden by the hag.” In Fiji, it’s getting “eaten by a demon.” You get the idea. In fact, sleep paralysis is actually where our word “nightmare” comes from! “Mare” was an Old English word for an incubus, a specific type of demon believed to sit on the chest of its victim during sleep. Putting “night” and “mare” together in reference to these unwanted visitors gives us the term we use today.
But, getting back to the original question… Sleep paralysis is associated with all sorts of nasty sleeping disorders (including sleep apnea). Moreover, research has shown that both sleep apnea and snoring can be triggered by lying on the back. So, it’s at least possible that, in my case, lying on my back is contributing to my experience with this phenomenon. It’s also possible that I experience sleep apnea on my back. But, given that I usually sleep on my side and stomach, I’m not too worried about it.
Thankfully, sleep paralysis is a pretty rare thing for me. Let’s hope it stays that way.