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Sleep Paralysis: The nighttime demons



I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time our nanny was supposedly disturbed by evil spirits. She would complain to people in the house about evil spirits disturbing her in her sleep. She said, sometimes, there would be an old lady sitting on her chest, looking down at her and trying to strangle her to death.

Other times, it would be a scary-looking man. I remember I used to be so frightened by her stories. In fact, I used to stay away from her because quite frankly, I thought she was possessed. On several occasions, my mum called a few pastors to come to the house to pray for her to ward off the ‘evil spirits’ and they would start praying for her even as she slept.

I am sure some of us have heard stories of people with similar experiences in their sleep. Very recently, a colleague of mine described how she experienced these sleep disturbances of someone holding her down while she slept, totally unable to move. She also narrated that, at that time in her sleep, she would have an “out of body” experience where her soul would leave her body and look back at her physical body laying helpless (similar to what we see in Nollywood movies). Back then, she would talk to her mum about it and they would always pray together. You can only imagine her shock when in medical school, the same symptoms were used to describe a condition called, ‘Sleep Paralysis!’


What is Sleep Paralysis?
In the simplest terms, sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious while asleep, but unable to move. It is usually accompanied by frightening hallucinations and perceived physical experiences. These perceived physical experiences may be a feeling of an external pressure holding you down in your sleep; one may even feel someone trying to strangle or choke them whilst they are completely helpless because all their muscles are paralyzed. Episodes may last from thirty seconds to several minutes, though those that experience it may feel that it goes on for longer.

How does Sleep Paralysis Happen?
While we are asleep, our body goes through REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During NREM sleep, the body relaxes and restores itself, and right after NREM sleep, sleep shifts to REM sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes move quickly, and dreams occur but the rest of the muscles are still turned off. If the neural functions that regulate sleep are out of balance, some people may have an overlap, and the signals that would allow for complete arousal from sleep state would be suppressed, and the person sort of stays ‘in between’ for a few minutes where the muscles are totally paralyzed but the brain is alert and fully aroused.


Sleep Paralysis is a very common condition. Four out of 10 people would experience at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lifetime. Sleep paralysis has been shown to be caused by prolonged lack of sleep, Increased stress, substance abuse and some medications have also been linked to sleep paralysis. Though this is rare, sleep paralysis has also been associated with mental disorders such as Bipolar disorder. There may also be a genetic component because research shows that there is a high incidence of sleep paralysis in twins. That is to say, if one twin experiences sleep paralysis, the likelihood of the other twin experiencing it as well, is high.

Every time we go to sleep, there is a chance that one may experience an episode of sleep paralysis. It can be a very frightening condition. People that have this condition frequently suffer from Intense fear and extreme anxiety. People freak out because they can’t move and they start having perceptions of mysterious physical presence in the room, this further heightens the fear, causes increased heart rate and fear of impending death. Avoiding sleep paralysis may be as simple as adopting a few lifestyle changes such as; practicing some stress management techniques, getting longer sleep, and changing your sleep position away from supine. You may also consult with your doctor if you have recurrent sleep paralysis. Your doctor would be able to review your current medications that may be triggering sleep paralysis and possibly prescribe antidepressants that would help regulate sleep cycles, or treat any underlying condition.

Sleep paralysis can be a horrifying experience for people who experience it. It is very common so most people may have had it or know someone who may have it. The most important thing is to educate people that there is no need to be fearful of night time demons. There have been some terrifying cultural and religious explanations regarding this sleep condition. Most people feel it’s an attack from evil spirits. There is a need to increase awareness that it is a common medical condition and the good news is that it can be controlled through regular sleep and a healthy lifestyle.

Disclaimer: The medical information provided on here by Dr. Nini Iyizoba is provided as an information resource only. This information does not create any patient-physician relationship and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.


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