Demons, silent screaming and multiple attackers – researchers explore the nightmare that is sleep paralysis

The School of Psychology at the National University of Ireland Galway has completed the first phase of a study on the number of people affected by sleep paralysis and unusual sleep experiences. Over 1,100 people in Ireland have shared their experiences, with participants relating the often scary sensations they have experienced while in the awake-like state.

Sleep paralysis can happen when we are falling asleep or waking up and is often viewed as a distressing experience. Participants reported sensing there was someone else in the room, or seeing intruders with no face, or demons, or being unable to scream.

Approximately 80% reported at least one experience of sleep paralysis. Life-time number of episodes were 1-3 episodes (18% ), 4-10 episodes (19% ), 11-20 episodes (15% ) and greater than 20 episodes (27% ).

In line with previous studies, just under 30% reported experiencing life-time mental health diagnoses, and a sixth of the sample were currently experiencing mental health difficulties.

“The main features of sleep paralysis are, the inability to move, a perception that there is someone or something in their room, that the person is being touched or being sat on or strangled. Hearing noises or voices or an intruder’s breathing are also commonly reported by sleep paralysis experiences,” explains Dr Jonathan Egan, from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway.

This study was interested in looking at how people’s emotions and lifestyles relate to their sleep. It was also interested in understanding how and why people experience sleep difficulties like sleep paralysis.

Half the sample reported experiencing the sleep paralysis episode whilst lying on their backs, while only 5% reported it on their stomach. For 45%, they reported position did not make a difference. Half of the sample reported that they thought there was something wrong with their physical well-being or that they were losing their mind or going insane. Only 10% thought that an alien or magical entity caused their experience.

The researchers were also interested in the relationship between sleep hygiene and general psychological wellbeing. “CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy ) approach is recommended to address sleep paralysis, however, should it also be associated with daytime collapses or sleepiness people should go to their GPs to rule out narcolepsy. The CBT approach addresses sleep hygiene and ways of breathing to relax the person’s body and ways of looking at catastrophic thinking during an episode,” added Dr Egan.

The principal investigator on the project was Michelle Tomas, a trainee clinical psychologist on the Doctor of Clinical Psychology training programme at the University, under the supervision of the Deputy Director of the programme, Dr Egan.

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