Sleep Paralysis, Fear, and Spirituality

Image by nima (cc)

The following is an excerpt from my soon-to-be published ebook,  Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide.  This section illustrates how sleep paralysis is a complex set of experiences that includes body paralysis, waking hallucinations, and the fear that connects these two strands together, reinforcing the nightmarish aspects of the condition.

Separating the Components of the Experience

It’s important to separate sleep paralysis from hypnagogic hallucinations (HH), because understanding these components will help you gain familiarity and mastery of this fascinating mental state.

1. The physical sensation of paralysis.  You can’t move.  You can’t scream.  You can’t do anything as the feeling of weight presses down on your chest and throat.

2. Next, there is a conscious reaction of fear, dread, and terror as your sense of helplessness escalates.  For some the fear of being attacked is so intense it is called “death anxiety.”

3. The scariest part of all–– Hypnagogic visions which can be visual, auditory, tactile and even odoriferous. HH includes the hooded apparition who shows up on the side of the bed, or the invisible presence who lays a cold hand on your helpless body.

Together, these symptoms of SP/HH can reinforce each other by our participation, whether the reaction is fear, anticipation, or passionate surrender.  What we bring to these encounters helps determine the outcome because dreaming is a co-creative mental act, not a given.  The path is not set: we are surrounded by choices and possibilities in every moment.

The Expectation Effect

Psychologically, what happens when the fear spirals into a nightmare is a feedback loop known as the expectation effect. The fear caused by the paralysis leads us to bring up past experiences that are similar to this sensation.  Often, these are experiences or stories of being oppressed by another person, of being held down, and, especially for women, of being sexually violated. In a world where 1 out of 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, these fears are all too common.

Once the subconscious connections have been made between the present sensations and memories or fears, the brain begins to interpret the experience according to these narratives.  If the paralysis is followed by hypnagogic hallucinations (HH), then these visions will typically include a sinister agent who wants to do us harm.  We end up manifesting our worst nightmare without realizing it.

Sleep Paralysis and Inner Crisis

If you have never experienced iSP before, and are suddenly having multiple encounters a night, something other than diet and sleep habits may be involved.  In some cases, SP may be a symptom of a larger crisis that involves your sense of meaning, faith, or spirituality.  Conversely, if you are exploring lucid dreaming for the first time, disturbing paralysis nightmares may come with the package.  In both cases, it is appropriate to look at your deepest beliefs so we can ward off the manifestation of our worst fears.

The greatest ally here is the power of our core beliefs.  This is the sense of order and balance we have about how the world works.  Even if you are not religious, or even spiritually minded, you still have a belief system that operates daily, guiding your thoughts, actions, and governing your sense of justice.  It may be the belief that God is Love, or it could be a reliance in rationalism and the power of the mind.  The key is to tap into these core beliefs and lean against them in times of need.

The reason this is so important is that the hypnagogic visions that follow paralysis are already working on this deep level, but they can work against us.  They are tapping into the negative side of our beliefs when we experience fear.  These fears manifest as personal visions of chaos, death, and true evil.   That’s why psychologists list paralysis nightmares as one possible indication of a spiritual emergency.

This is no new-age mumbo jumbo: spiritual emergency is a psychological condition that is listed in the DSM IV, the latest edition of the American psychiatric diagnostic manual. While a spiritual emergency is broadly defined, it is often characterized by disturbing visions and experiences that can be linked to a serious crisis about the meaning of life and existence.  The crisis often happens at times of transition into adulthood, into parenthood, and into mid-life, for example.

Because paralysis nightmares are often cited as one symptom of a spiritual emergency, the question to ask is, “Why am I having these experiences now, at this time of my life?”

Seen in this light, SP can serve as a metaphor for the fact that our old defenses are no longer functioning as well as before.  It’s also an indicator that life stress is becoming overwhelming, or that we are having trouble coping with major life changes such as a death in the family, or trouble on the job front.  When this stress manifests as SP, the body is paralyzed, the mind is in fight or flight, and there’s nowhere to run.

So, instead, we must take a stand.

For some, this looks like courage.  For others, it is faith.  I cannot speak for you, and I certainly am not advocating a particular religion or spiritual viewpoint in this book.  That said, if you can tread in these deep waters, you will learn how to turn the fear on its side and break free of these disturbing nightmares.

(c) 2010 Ryan Hurd

Hope you enjoy!  I have been working hard behind the scenes to make this ebook available as soon as possible.

Update: Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide is now available. Click here to learn more.


  1. Tallulah Lyons says

    This is so well written and will help so many people. Again, I will take copies to the cancer dream group this week.
    Thanks so much!

  2. says

    I’m looking forward to your actual book. This is going to be so useful to those of us in the healing and counseling professions. Great work!

  3. insight says

    It’s nice to see you talking about this in simple language which makes it easy to understand. Looking forward to the book.

  4. Ann says

    Thanks for such succinct and insightful explanations! I well remember when I first frighteningly became aware of sleep paralysis–wish I’d had this comforting explanation back then!

  5. Kate says

    I’d like to second Ann’s comment. I frequently experienced sleep paralysis and the accompanying hallucinations in college. This had never happened to me before that period of my life, and fortunately it hasn’t happened since. I wish I had known then what was actually going on.

    • Caleb says

      You are not Hallucinating so dont fall for that, what you see and experience is very real..Its demonic attack and i have had it for 3 years. It has happened to me while im asleep or while im awake, iv seen things that no one should be able to see..Luckly we have a God that loves us and there is Power in the name of JESUS, anyone who has this say the name of Jesus and it will stop instantly, Ephesians 6:10-18, Mark 16:16-18, Luke 10:17

  6. joanne says

    it’s so comforting to see that I am not the only one that suffered from this, I began having sp and hh when I was 17 I had no idea what they were and I was to afraid to see a doctor incase I was going crazy, I am pleased to say I’m now 29 and I now am in control alot more and have turned these episodes into lucid dreaming instead which is most of the time pleasurable, I lucid dream about 3 to 4 times a wk, well therr the ones i remember anyway, it took me along time to overcome sp though i really had to keep facing my fears when i was in them.

  7. says

    thank you everyone for the support! When I first wrote about SP a couple years ago, I had no idea that it was suffered by so many. It’s in a blind spot for modern culture.

    Joanne – your story in particular is touching, as I went through a similar process in my late teens and early adulthood. I’m glad to hear you have been able to turn the experience of the nightmares into lucid dreaming. Facing fears is at the crux of this — the journey into the unknown. far as I can tell, we’re never really done with that task and we have our entire life to learn how to dream!

  8. joanne says

    hi ryan, i have never researched b4 the meaning of these episodes til few days ago when i came across this page, i can’t wait to read your book on this, I found a site b4 though that began to scare me as it was a forum on people who believe what happens in these hallucinations are actually real.The reason it bothered me is that my paralysis and hallucinations yrs ago where always of me being attacked and raped by a really evil presense i cant tell you how frightening it really was, i can still remember every detail of this now, at first i did used to say the lords prayer over and over, i had no idea what the scientific reason was for these episodes and to be honest i was to scred to ask. I am a little disturbed today though when there are sites telling me that these are infact real demons, i know that may sound crazy but the fact they used to feel so real it can’t help but still frighten me! I’m happy i very rare have these hallucinations now, like i said they are now mainly lucid dreams which i love having, I think i will stick to just this site an wait to read your book b4 i scare myself 2 death reading to much online lol

  9. says

    Joanne, thanks for staying in touch. Yes, I decided to write the book because the online information is really sketchy! Currently, the most popular sleep paralysis forum on the web teaches that SP is a biological state that allows you to be contacted by aliens. I won’t even link there. That kind of cult perspective is scarier to me than even the worst nightmares.

    The spirits, in my opinion, are psychologically real. We can be traumatized by these apparitions, as you well know. But once you realize that the interactions are taking place in mental space (ie the “imaginal realm” as depth psychologists call the dreamworld), you realize that your reaction can co-create what you are experiencing. This is the gift of lucid dreaming. Not that we should disrespect these frightening experiences as “wacky illusions” or “meaningless dreams” however. Rather, we have the opportunity to transform these encounters into growth experiences that can be deeply healing. This is true for self-help, or if you are working with a minister or counselor who has experience with dream medicine.

  10. joanne says

    thanks for writing back ryan, I think when I used to have thses episodes it was at first hard to believe it was my own mind, but the way i overcame them was first i stopped fightin back with what i thought was someone evil attcking me and i found then it had lost its power then from that i used to start asking for things 2 appear for me and when they sometimes did it then began 2 reasure me that i was infact in control in some weird way, I’m a very spiritual person now which did strengthen from these experiences so overall its been positive 4 me, i lucid dream about 3 times a wk now and i find i can do all sorts in this state, i think the main thing i learnt from it all was to just remain calm and keep telling myself it wasn’t real and that nothin could truly harm me, I feel like i could talk and talk about this because i’ve never looked it up b4 i just keep it 2 myself really lol but thanks its been really helpful :-)

  11. susan marty says

    The scientific study of dream rhelm is extrodinary. I applaude the work of. However, i do believe that there is a difference between average dreaming and those with the Godly gift of psychic awareness. As you have stated in your excerpt writing…it is all based on the level of belief. Could we study the “depth” of beleif of the individual compared to the average person who believes “chocoalte pudding” is addictive?

  12. says

    hi Susan,

    not sure where you’re going with the chocolate pudding metaphor (although it sounds yummy), but you have brought up an important point, which is that most dream research has been done on normal/everynight dreams, but the dreams that we remember for the rest of our lives (which sometimes have psychic elements) are structurally and phenomenologically different than the boring old high school “I’m naked!” dreams. You might enjoy this article on big dreams.