I awake from a nap on an airplane, but something’s not right. My eyes are closed, my body is still, but yet, I’m conscious, I'm aware of my physical self. There’s internal panic as my eyes dart behind shut lids, and I realize I can’t move. I’m completely frozen, with an acute awareness of the separation of my self, what some would call a soul, from the body I'm currently trapped in, unable to stir. I prepare to do the only thing I can think of: I will make myself move. Okay, I think. One, two, three,move. One, two, three,move. Eventually, my body heaves forward, my eyes snap open, and I take a gaping breath as the woman sitting next to me raises an eyebrow. As I would find out from research later that day, what I had experienced had a name, and about 8 percent of the population will experience it at some point in their lives: sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by an inability to move muscles and often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. A cursory inquiry on my Facebook had friends jumping at the bit to share their experiences. "I feel like I'm waking up in a version of my room but in a dark realm," said one. "I had an experience," said another, "where a darkened creature opened my front door and was creeping toward me with what appeared to be a knife in their hand." They all shared the common themes reported by most who experience sleep paralysis: a dark figure, supernatural creatures, a sense of dread, and often, a physical, suffocating feeling. So, what the eff, body? What's going on?
When a person falls asleep and enters deep REM sleep, the brain tells the body’s voluntary muscles to relax and be still, entering a state called atonia. This protects your body as you sleep, preventing you from acting out physical movements in dreams. While the pathophysiology of sleep paralysis is still not completely understood, research has consistently shown that onset is often triggered by extreme stress, lack of sleep, alcohol, caffeine, and other factors, although there are no known exact causes. While researchers are still trying to understand the natural phenomenon that is sleep paralysis, some believe it is a fragmentation of REM sleep—becoming aware before your REM cycle has finished and your body is still in atonia—while others think it is the gateway to lucid dreaming or the body’s way of trying to achieve an out-of-body experience (OBE).
While there has been extensive research in lucid dreaming—a dream where you are aware you are dreaming—OBE is still not entirely understood. The first scientifically documented OBE was in 2014 when a team of scientists monitored the brain activity of a woman who said she could induce them at will. While she reported being able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, the scientists saw her functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showing a “strong deactivation of the visual cortex,” while other parts of the brain involved with mental imagery of bodily movement were lit up like fireworks. In other words, it was real in that she experienced it, but it didn’t scientifically mean her “soul” escaped or that it was a genuine astral trip.
So, some believe sleep paralysis, lucid dreams, and OBEs are triggered by hallucinations, but others say no way. “I absolutely believe that it has to do with spirituality and existing in higher levels of frequency,” New York-based artist Lauren Flax says. “Sleep paralysis is a key component to having an out-of-body experience—it's thought that we can’t really move when we exit or enter back into our bodies, but once you understand that element, the fear subsides and you can wait it out. Being alive and being human means we exist at the lowest frequency. We leave our bodies when we die, so why not learn that ability while alive?”
Dream researcher Ryan Hurd agrees, calling sleep paralysis “an initiation into the dreaming arts,” and those who experience it as possessing “a greater ability to be touched by the world, experience life and all of its pain, as well as its beauty.” So, if you experience sleep paralysis, it seems you're already ahead of the game and there can be ways to turn it into a lucid dream or OBE—something freeing and fantastical, and not tormenting. Though it feels horrifying, it is simply a brief biological event, and one that can work in your favor at that. As DreamStudies.org says, “You’re not dying. It’s a hiccup in the brain’s chemical soup.”
Believers, if you want to try and harness your brain’s power, and turn an episode of sleep paralysis into a joyful, trippy experience, here are some tips that could train your body to flip things around. While we've outlined the basics below, there are a vast array of techniques and methods for lucid dreaming. For more resources on dreaming and to find a method that works for you, visit The Lucidity Institute, DreamStudies.org, or the lucid dreaming subreddit.
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Know the causes
Whether your goal is to prevent an episode of sleep paralysis or try to induce it for a lucid dream or OBE, know what can be potential triggers. Erratic sleep schedules, sleeping on your back, social anxiety, exhaustion, liquor, caffeine, and ADHD medication are all known external causes that can contribute toward inducing an episode of sleep paralysis. If you’re looking to avoid it, clean up your diet and patterns, starting with trying to go to bed at the same time every night, making your bedroom a “safe place” to sleep in with aromatherapy and no TV, and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening. If you’re looking to safely induce an episode… read on.
Prepare for lucid dreams
In order to turn your sleep paralysis into a lucid dream or OBE, there are some essential steps to take beforehand. Dream recall is of utmost importance. Keep a journal by your bed and as soon as you wake, remain still while you remember all the essential elements of your dream. Next, write everything down, no matter how fragmented it seems at the time. If it happens in the middle of the night, do not wait until morning, you are likely to forget the dream. Pay close attention to "dream signs”—elements that are concrete indicators you are dreaming (things like flight, meeting historical figures, or fantastical beasts like unicorns).
There is work to do while awake as well. Several times a day, do a reality test. This can be something like reading a line of text or looking at the time on a watch. Look at the chosen item for your reality test, look away, then look back again. In a dream, research shows that text and numbers change 75 percent of the time when reread once, and 95 percent of the time when reread twice. By engaging your brain in this activity during the day, you will become conditioned to use it to check if you are dreaming while asleep.
Tips for turning sleep paralysis into a lucid dream
The most important factor in transitioning sleep paralysis into a lucid dream is overcoming fear. It's hard, sleep paralysis is freaky! But there are ways to practice mindfulness. Begin with affirming to yourself that you are in sleep paralysis to calm your nerves. Fighting it will only result in spookier hallucinations. Then, try one of these three methods to shift yourself into a dream:
1. After you have centered yourself, close your eyes. Your eyes may actually already be closed during your state of sleep paralysis. Be aware of any strange floating sensations, and relax into them. Now, draw up an intention and make a declaration. For example, “I want to fly over mountains!” Imagine yourself in that moment, over mountain ranges, soaring through. With any luck (and some practice), the dream will crystallize around you until it seems as real as your everyday life. Consistently remind yourself that you are dreaming, and pay attention to how clear your mind feels.
2. Make sure your eyes are closed and focus your attention in between and slightly above the eyes. When lights and imagery start to swim around, keep your focus. After a while, these lights should begin to focus and gather around your point of concentration, much like a kaleidoscope. With practice, if you are still in REM during sleep onset, this imagery will expand and lend the sensation of flying or falling. Use this as a tunnel to enter your dream, setting intention about where you want to go.
3. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Instead of using intentionality, simply go where you are pushed. If, during sleep paralysis, you feel gravity pushing you down, simply "pull" where you are being pushed. Focus on the feeling of your perceptual body melting down and away, leading you into a void where you can set the intention for your dream.
The WILD method
If you want to intentionally prepare to have a lucid dream, the Wake Induced Lucid Dream (WILD) method is one of the better-documented techniques.
1. It is best to be already tired, though not exhausted, and lie on your back. An excellent way to be relaxed enough is to set an alarm to wake up after 4 to 6 hours of sleep. Some have success during afternoon naps if they are able to fall asleep easily, others if they naturally tend to wake up in the middle of the night.
2. Regardless of when you try, you must be properly relaxed. Otherwise, your body will take additional time to fall asleep. Try doing stretching exercises or meditation before bed, or play gentle, soothing music. Once in bed, focus on relaxing your feet, and imagine them releasing their weight. Work your way up your body using this technique, being mindful not to move. Not moving is important, as it's one of the indicators that will help convince your brain it's asleep.
3. After some minutes, your body should begin to enter a hypnagogic state, the place between wakefulness and being asleep. You might hear a buzzing sound, experience a pulsing, or start seeing random patterns of light. This is completely normal, and it is important to stay calm as any panic could bring you right back to a fully awakened state. It might take a few tries for you to be fully relaxed here, especially if you are not used to it or have had fearful sleep paralysis episodes in the past.
4. If you get caught in sleep paralysis before/during/after this process, it is important to, again, not panic and instead try to recognize what is happening, rather than believe you are still awake. You're already halfway to a lucid dream because your body is, technically, asleep while your mind is aware. Focus your awareness on entering a dream space. Some say it helps to have your brain coordinate movements with a separate dream body. Do not try to move your physical body as you will unintentionally activate the part of your brain responsible for hallucinations. Relax and focus on your breathing instead. Accept your immobility and imagine a scene where you want to be.
5. If you move beyond the paralysis, you should begin to enter a dream state. You can perform your preferred reality check to confirm you are dreaming, then try to stabilize it. This means engaging your senses—look around, try to grab something, interact with things around you. The more you command the environment you're in, the more control you will have over the dream, its direction, and the environment.
If you've reached this point, congrats, and have fun!
Sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming problems
1. If you find that you are too relaxed, then you'll simply drift off to sleep as usual. If you're falling asleep normally, pay more attention to keeping yourself relaxed but also engaged as you enter a dream state.
2. On the flip side, if your mind is too active, you won’t be able to drift into the hypnagogic state. Don't force things. Get up, read for a bit, spend time in another room, then try again after about 30 minutes. Don't use this time to play a game on your phone, watch TV, or use any device that emits light.
3. It’s easy to panic or lose your focus during sleep paralysis. If you try to struggle against the paralysis, you’ll either wake up or be too distracted to achieve lucidity. Set an intention firmly in your mind beforehand that you want to be unable to move and that the unsettling sensations that come with it are okay. You have to desensitize yourself to the fear that comes along with sleep paralysis.
4. Especially for beginners, it can be difficult to recognize when you are in sleep paralysis or within a dream. This only comes with experience, and you will learn to acknowledge the subtle shifts that occur and be mindful of things like using your personal reality test.
5. A false awakening can be another variation of not recognizing your dream. Sometimes you believe that you've woken up, but you're still very much within the dream. Again, it’s good to be in the habit of utilizing your personal reality test every time you wake up to make sure you catch these tricky deceptions.