The following is an excerpt from my book, Sleep Paralysis. 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, from Sleep paralysis