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Episode 6: Sleep and the Supernatural

What can sleep’s mysterious visions teach us about ourselves?

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Sleep paralysis is like when you wake too early from a dream, and your waking and sleeping brains collide. Many see vivid and terrifying visions, and feel unable to move. This is a sleep disorder that more than twenty-percent of us will experience in our lifetime, yet is it not well understood. Meet Dr. Baland Jalal, who went from suffering from sleep paralysis to becoming an expert working on a cure.

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Read Episode 6 Full Transcript Below:

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: I’m Kate Berlant. I’m an actor, comic, and writer. And I’m the host of “Are You Sleeping?”, a podcast about sleep from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: We’ve been talking about so many fascinating issues around sleep. But in my conversations with experts and listeners, one really mysterious condition keeps coming up.

[MUX IN: VARIOUS TAPES OF PEOPLE INCLUDING KIMBERLY, CHRIS, AND SOPHIA EXPLAINING EPISODES OF SLEEP PARALYSIS]

KIMBERLY: After that first time I was like, “Okay, what just happened to me? Was I dreaming or what?” And then it started every month.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS, CREEPY LOW GUITAR NOTES, DRUM BEATS, AND VIOLIN STRINGS. MIXED WITH THUMPING SOUNDS, CLICKING NOISES AND THE SOUND OF A WINDOW OPENING, WHICH GO ALONG WITH CHRIS, SOPHIA, AND KIMBERLY’S STORIES.]

[OMINOUS MUSIC CONTINUES THROUGH EXPLANATIONS OF SLEEP PARALYSIS EXPERIENCES]

CHRIS: And all the sudden, I heard the window slam open and what sounded like something enter, so, like, landed in the bedroom with a loud thump. And I started hearing, like, this, these weird, like, clicking and, like, kind of chittering noises in that room.

SOPHIA: And then I felt something kind of pet my head, it was, “Oh God, I can see the arm.”

KATE [VO]: Sleep paralysis. It can be one of the most frightening phenomena to experience while sleeping. And one of the reasons it’s so scary? You feel completely awake.

KIMBERLY: You know something’s in your room. You don’t know if it’s in the corner, you don’t know where it is because it’s dark in the room and you’re like, there’s something here and it’s coming to get me.

[MUX IN: DRIPPING WATER NOISES (WITH THE CONTINUED OMINOUS MUSIC]

CHRIS: And then I heard what sounded like, uh, someone or something kind of standing up in a tub of water. So there was water, like, dripping off into the tub. And then I heard the dripping leave the bathroom, come on to the landing at the bottom of the stairs. I could hear the dripping coming up the stairs.

SOPHIA: And all of a sudden he turned around and his face fell off from human form to demon like right in front of me.

KATE [VO]: That terror is something that many people who’ve had sleep paralysis share. And the fear can be compounded by being physically frozen, unable to move. Trapped somewhere between waking and sleep, between life and death.

KIMBERLY: And when I open my mouth to say something, I couldn’t say anything.

[MUX IN: CHOKING NOISES (WITH THE CONTINUED OMINOUS MUSIC]

KIMBERLY: My legs wouldn’t move. I mean, I couldn’t even wiggle my toe. Nothing would move. So I’m laying here and I am petrified. Whatever it is I think is coming toward me, I don’t want to see it.

JESSICA: My chest felt so heavy. And I felt this impending warmth just kind of suffocating me.

CHRIS: And then I heard it rushing towards the bedroom door, and just as it got to the door, I felt something hammer punching me as hard as they could right on my heart.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS MUSIC RISES AND BREAKS]

A man wearing a dark fedora, with dark, curly hair down to his ears. He wears black sunglasses, a slight smile and dark jacket with a light fleece collar.
Neuroscientist and Researcher, Dr. Baland Jalal

KATE [VO]: Your heart’s pounding right?

[MUX IN: SOUND OF A HEART POUNDING]

KATE [VO]: I had to know more about these mystifying and disturbing experiences. And thankfully I found an expert.

[MUX OUT]

BALAND: One day I, you know, I was sleeping and I found myself paralyzed, you know, shockingly. And I thought, “What do I do? You know, I can’t move. I can’t speak.” And I tried to scream. That was my first reaction, you know. I went, “dad, mom,” but just the word wouldn’t come out of my mouth. They were just stuck there.

KATE [VO]: Baland Jalal knows sleep paralysis intimately. He’s had these frightening episodes since he was young.

BALAND: I start having this feeling that some ominous evil presence is, was in my bedroom, and this feeling escalated with each second and it got more and more terrifying. Until I suddenly felt this creature was on my chest, strangling me. I saw my legs flying up and down. I literally saw that, you know, it’s a full-fledged hallucination. And I thought I was going to die, you know. It was shocking.

KATE [VO]: And he thinks they may have been sparked by his difficult childhood.

BALAND: My parents are Kurdish from Iraq and they escaped the war in Iraq and came to Bulgaria when I was born. So, I was born in Bulgaria and then they moved to Denmark in hope of a better life. So we went to refugee camp. So I was in refugee camp initially, but luckily I got out of that camp. But we, I grew up in a sort of ghetto-like area, that was my upbringing. A tough neighborhood. And people die, stabbing. My neighbor got shot in the head, killed and all that, things would happen. But for us, it was just life.

KATE [VO]: Baland struggled in school. He says he didn’t have any role models. But things changed when he got to high school.

BALAND: I just had this awakening where I thought, “Oh, let me go to books, see what they can tell me.” And then I just started to read books and just got absorbed in the world of knowledge and ideas. And it just sort of flipped my personality completely in the sense that I thought, “Oh, there’s something here and I can actually understand some of this.” Because I was doing it out of passion and curiosity, it was different than being, being told. I wasn’t very good at being told to do things in school. That was the problem.

And for me, I just had a hope of giving my parents a better life. That was also something that was on my, my radar, and I was very curious about who I was as a person. What was my purpose in life? What was I, you know, meant to achieve? And, you know, I had the sleep paralysis episode and it was so strange and it was so fundamental to a sense of self being sort of dissolved and, you know, split and, you know, paralyzed and all that.

[MUX IN: LIGHT GUITAR STRINGS AND DRUM/CYMBALS BEATS]

BALAND: So that curiosity and then, that existential quest, really, that’s what it was, and I think combination of those, my life story that led me to where I am today, I think.

Kate: Baland is one of the world’s leading experts on sleep paralysis. He got his PhD from Cambridge University. And currently, he’s a neuroscientist at Harvard. And for the last decade, he’s interviewed scores of people around the globe, trying to decode sleep paralysis, OCD, anxiety and depressive disorders.

Knowing that he went from being a refugee kid in a rough immigrant neighborhood, struggling with sleep paralysis to becoming a global leader on the disorder, it’s truly an amazing story. And it’s even more amazing that he’s used his own experiences to help us better understand one of sleep’s most disturbing mysteries.

Baland says roughly twenty-percent of us will experience an episode of sleep paralysis in our lifetime. These frightening events usually appear in your teens, and occur most frequently in your twenties and thirties.

Goblins sitting on your chest, dead people in your bedroom, feeling like you can’t breathe or move.

It’s horrible. Trust me, I know.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS MUSIC, DEEP, ECHOING NOTES]

KATE: I think I can remember the first incident was when I was a kid, maybe like 10 or so. But it’s happened to me as recently as just the other day, I kind of felt like it was kind of starting to happen. What it feels like for me is waking up feeling completely conscious, completely aware of everything that’s going along. However, being essentially paralyzed, completely unable to speak or move. And time sort of collapses in this moment, and I am unclear if seconds have passed, minutes have passed. It’s a very surreal experience.

I’m fascinated by sleep, and the more mysterious and confusing the sleep issue is, the more I’m hooked. And that’s exactly how Baland feels about sleep paralysis.

Baland: There’s nothing like this in science at all. Nothing like this. This blends philosophy, science, horror movies, exorcism and all of these components into one thing, space aliens. People still don’t know what it is. So it made obvious sense that this was a gold mine. This was the most interesting thing. Let me, let me study it and really dig deep and understand what, what’s going on.

KATE [VO]: So what exactly is sleep paralysis?

[MUX IN: LIGHT, ETHEREAL NOTES AND CHIMES]

KATE [VO]: Baland says a simple explanation is: It’s when you wake up too early from a dream. Sort of like when your sleeping brain and your awake brain collide.

BALAND: Exactly. The head on collision, right!

KATE [VO]: Now, if you’ve heard our sleep expert Dr. Shelby Harris break down sleep cycles in episode one, some of what Baland says might sound familiar.

BALAND: Sleep paralysis emerges out of one of the stages of sleep, so each night, Kate, you cycle through different stages of sleep. And one of these stages is called REM sleep, Rapid Eye Movement, sleep. And during REM, you have vivid, lifelike, crisp dreams. You know, these are the dreams where you find yourself on the moon, wrestling with an alligator and then suddenly you’re having tea with the queen. Everything is messed up. Time, places, people, everything is just warped. You know, our brain is clever. It says, “Look, buddy, let me paralyze the entire body, so I can’t act out these dreams and hurt myself.” So it’s a sort of a defensive mechanism in that way.

KATE [VO]: And it makes sense, right? Like if you’re dreaming that you’re diving off a cliff or swimming with sharks, you don’t want your body to act out those motions, and hurt yourself or a partner.

But sometimes, there’s a glitch.

BALAND: Occasionally what happens is that your wakefulness part of the brain can become prematurely activated even though you’re still sleeping in REM and having this paralysis.

KATE: Mmm.

BALAND: So the REM paralysis, the REM physiology is colliding with the wakeful brain. Your brain’s starting to wake up and then you end up in this twilight zone where you are mentally aware, but you can’t move. You can’t sort of speak, your entire body is paralyzed, right?

[MUX IN: OMINOUS MUSIC, LOW, LONG VIOLIN NOTES, SQUEAKY NOTES AND CYMBALS CRASHING, LIGHT CHIMES JOIN IN]

BALAND: So you might have your dream mentation right, meaning your dream reality spills over into a wakeful consciousness. So you start literally dreaming with your eyes open. It’s a very peculiar, very unique state.

KATE [VO]: And it’s inspired the writing of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s a famous painting from 1781, by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, called “The Nightmare.” Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s of a woman in a white nightgown. She’s reclined on her back, her head and arms drape over the sides of the bed. She’s lost deep in sleep. And crouched on her chest is a demonic creature, an ominous, gremlin-like beast.

The painting is flat-out freaky. And it captures the supernatural nature of sleep paralysis. And yes, I know Baland is sharing the science behind it. But it also feels like something else is at work here.

BALAND: My own experience was a huge trigger for me to go study it. You know, think about what was going on in the brain, why we have this. And obviously my first, you know, intuition was, this is a ghost. This is something supernatural. I got to study it and I have some ideas of what is going on in the brain now.

KATE [VO]: That sounds so terrifying because again, my experience with sleep paralysis has been so terrifying. But if there were hallucinations on top of it? That sounds like an absolute nightmare.

BALAND: So, you know, during sleep paralysis, there are different types of hallucinations that you can experience. You know, I’d say about 40 percent or so, our research suggests, of people have these hallucinations. So it’s not all people with sleep paralysis. But then you have this subset of people who might have a sensed presence of a demonic figure. Or they might hear footsteps of the creature coming. Or they might even see the bloody creature in the room with them, you know, hovering over them. Or you might even have an out-of-body experience. So you might see yourself floating above yourself and you’re looking on the ceiling and there you are, and you’re having this conversation with this copy of yourself. And the conversation is usually who is the real me? This Baland here? Or the Baland up there? So the sense of agency, the sense of “I” is being hijacked by this, this other you and you’re sort of trying to claim this agency for yourself.

We think it has to do with the fact that your sense of self, your sense of body image, the feeling of being anchored here now in your body, that feeling is being disrupted during the sleep paralysis state. And because of that, your sense of self gets projected out there, so you have an out-of-body experience. Or, even if you see a shadow-like being, you might think, “Oh my God, this is an exogenous, external creature coming for me.” So even though it’s actually your own body image, we believe that’s being projected out there, you sort of project the story around it, you say, “Oh, this is actually a demon. You know, it looks like this, has these attributes because it fits my culture.”

KATE [VO]: Wild, right? It’s like we’re mixing up our own body image with terrorizing folklore. And Baland says our culture has a huge influence on what creature we might see during sleep paralysis. Maybe Baland saw a ghost because that’s part of his culture. Some people see the gremlin-like demon, or a man in a hat. It all depends on your cultural folklore.

BALAND: So like in Italy, they have the penda figure, a folklore and an idea of this creature, which is sort of a giant cat that can sort of transform itself into a witch. And there’s a whole story around what it does, how it comes, and how you can get rid of it using certain things, putting it like corns of sand by the door. In Egypt, it’s the genie, it’s the evil genie, like the genie in Aladdin. So that has a story around how it comes, kills you, chokes you, he can possess you. So I do an interview with a girl in Egypt. She’ll tell me, “Well, the, the genie came in, it came in the human form, and I saw this creature with a bloody face and sharp teeth,” and the whole thing, you know, and just fit in, right into the culture.

KATE: Why is it that when people are waking up in these states, it’s a haunting presence? Why isn’t it pleasant or why isn’t it more, why do these negative connotations arise in this state?

BALAND: Yeah, I think there are several aspects to that. So let me try to illustrate that using an example of Little Lisa. All right.

So a little Lisa is this girl and she’s being told by a grandmother over dinner that these creatures come at night and choke you and strangle you and do all these kinds of things to you.

[MUX IN: SOUNDS OF A DEMON SCREECHING]

BALAND: And so what little Lisa will do is that she will be terrified when she goes to bed, and when she has terror and horror and things like that, her emotional part of the brain will be hyperactive during the sleep state, and that can tilt you out of, you know, REM sleep and lead you to have sleep paralysis. So, that’s one part of the story.

KATE [VO]: So going to bed in a heightened emotional state is one way sleep paralysis can be triggered — like the scary folklore Baland mentioned. And it makes sense. If you’re worried about a monster or a saber tooth tiger coming to devour you while you sleep, you’ll remain in this hyper-vigilant state. And if someone or something wakes you, you’ll be completely startled.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS MUSIC, CREAKING LOW NOTES]

KATE [VO]: Now, the actual episodes only last seconds or maybe a few minutes. But when you’re in it, it can feel like forever. And waking up in a paralyzed state can be awful. Imagine popping your eyes open but you can’t move your body.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS MUSIC RISES AND VIBRATES/SHAKES LIKE IT’S STUCK]

KATE [VO]: And Baland says while you’re lying there trying to understand what’s happening, the fear center of your brain gets activated. So even normal things, like the pair of jeans or shirt that you left on your bedroom floor, suddenly starts to look like ominous beings.

BALAND: Because you’re emerging out of REM sleep, the REM breathing is automatic, it goes like, [Baland mimics rapid breathing], like this and so when you wake up during REM and try to control that, well, that will feel like something is pressing on your chest, so that’s painful.

[MUX IN: SOUND OF A HEARTBEAT]

BALAND: So again, it leads to sort of negative connotations. Similar with the limbs, because of the paralysis sensations, you don’t have feedback from the paralyzed body to sort of send dampening signals to the brain. It will feel like a spasm in your limbs and your arms, and all that which can be interpreted as a creature doing that.

KATE: That makes sense because you’re reminding me that I have had instances where I’m coming out of sleep paralysis and I was gasping for air, and it kind of feels like, [gasps, mimics quick breathing], like I wake up like I’ve clearly been struggling to breathe.

BALAND: One hundred percent. Yes, that’s what’s going on.

KATE [VO]: I warned you this was scary stuff.

And Baland says a previous trauma can be a trigger for sleep paralysis. He points to families like his own, who’ve had to flee their homes due to war, conflict or persecution. And according to the United Nations refugee agency, over 100 million people around the globe have been displaced this year alone. That’s the highest population ever on record.

These are people searching for a safe place to live. But the trauma they’ve experienced can follow them into their sleep, and literally haunt them for years. Baland says this happened to him, when he traveled to another conflict zone as an adult. The memories of his own childhood wounds reappeared.

BALAND: Back in the day when I was in Egypt, I was doing some research during the Libyan revolution. I had sleep paralysis often and I would see sort of Qaddafi hovering over me as a hallucination.

KATE: Ohhh, wow. [laughs]

BALAND: So not only do you have it more, but you also incorporate things from what’s going on in your social life. Or when you sort of expect sleep paralysis, when you think about it more, it lays there dormant in your mind. And then when you’re lying, sleeping, you sort of become a little bit more, sort of, suspicious to anything paralysis-like in your body and then you go in a confirmatory way, “Oh my God, am I paralyzed?” And sort of wake yourself up, expecting it to happen in a way.

[MUX IN: STEADY DRUM BEAT WITH ADDED STRONG PIANO CHORDS]

KATE [VO]: So, is there anything that can be done about sleep paralysis? We’ll find out, after the break.

[MIDROLL]

KATE [VO]: There are so many ways our waking life affects our sleep. Baland says things like trauma or folklore around nocturnal creatures can increase the chances that you’ll experience sleep paralysis. And countries and cultures have their own unique relationships and stories with these night time visions.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS QUICK-PACED VIOLIN, TURNS TO SOFTER, LOWER STRING NOTES]

BALAND: So it turns out when we compared sleep paralysis in Egypt and Denmark, and in Egypt, people would go, “Oh, it’s a genie. You know, it might kill you.” So they have all this fear around that. And in turn, they have it three times more often than their Danish counterpart.

KATE: I would imagine maybe even people would start to fear going to sleep, right? I mean, it would create so much fear around sleeping.

BALAND: We see that all the time of people fearing to go to sleep. So it’s quite terrible. Let me tell you of a finding that my colleague found. This was in 2005 or six that people that believe space alien abduction. So they’re lying in their bed and these space aliens are coming down and choking them and doing all kinds of things to them while they’re paralyzed. These very specific scenarios. These people, when you then have them explain what happened to them on tape and you record this and you play this back to them, their own stories, they will display physiological reactions like heart rate, boom, boom, boom, sweating, all that stuff. All that would be as reactive, so to speak, than somebody who listens to his own stories from being more in a war-like situation. So what we’re seeing is that traumatic physiological reactions from sleep paralysis is comparable to somebody who actually went to war. Shows you how powerfully profound this experience is and how it really, you know, can shape physiology in this way. It’s quite something.

KATE [VO]: Uh, yeah. I’d definitely say alien abductions fit into the wild category.

[MUX RAISE THEN OUT]

KATE [VO]: Now, Baland says narcolepsy is often linked to sleep paralysis. And actually, so are a lot of other pretty common conditions.

BALAND: So it turns out that people with anxiety disorders and people with panic disorder, or even people with trauma, PTSD, you know, they tend to have more sleep paralysis. And you might ask, why is that the case?

Well, it turns out if you do have anxiety in the day, you know, if you have panic-like feelings in the day, or you know, then you’re more likely to have it at night as well. And as we talked about, if you have anxiety at night during REM sleep, you’re more likely to wake up mentally being in REM and have sleep paralysis. So these folks have it more. And also, as you know, in trauma, there’s a huge element of just sleep being totally fractured. There’s a disruption to the whole architecture of sleep for people with trauma and you know, they have these recurring nightmares of their experiences and stuff. So yes, these populations have it more.

And then college students tend to have it a lot, and you can guess why, right? With their sleeping patterns and anxiety for exams and running late for class and all that stuff. So they tend to have it a lot as well. So these are the groups who have sleep paralysis frequently.

KATE: As an anxious person, that makes sense for me.

BALAND: Well, yeah, that, that would make sense.

KATE [VO]: Baland says even travel can trigger sleep paralysis, because your sleep pattern is disrupted and you’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place. He told me about a recent trip to England where he stayed in a castle.

[MUX IN: MAGICAL YET SLIGHTLY OMINOUS MUSIC, CHIMES, DRUM BEAT]

BALAND: I was just looking, the ceiling was high, and I thought, “My God, you know, there’s ghosts here.” And it was terrifying. This is probably like if you take the evil of the universe and you concentrate that into a bubble, it would be in my hotel right now, lurking over me right now. It was terrifying.

And then I thought, I’m going to use my therapy here. This is the right moment.

KATE [VO]: Now I don’t want to jump ahead, but Baland did develop a technique for snapping out of sleep paralysis. Thank God. And he’ll tell us about it in a little bit.

But all of these visions of ghosts and gremlins and dead people are absolutely otherworldly. And it also made me wonder if there is a purpose to these experiences. Like, are they a way of connecting to something beyond our realm of understanding?

BALAND: It seems very mystical. Hundred percent, hundred percent, Kate. Look. I mean, think about it, here you have this physical body. You give it a name, it has a bank account, right? You know, you clothe it with clothes, you know, and you do all these things right. But yet, you know, you’re sleeping and your sense of self is floating out there and it’s looking at the physical body, right? So it shows you that there’s a, you know, separation of sorts that can occur. And going back to the whole threat thing and being in a state of threat and how your brain can then push you out of your physical body.

KATE [VO]: Baland says there are times when your brain might protectively separate your consciousness from your corporeal being. For example, if someone has suffered a violent assault.

BALAND: They will feel sometimes that their sense of self is out there looking at themselves having this experience, right? So dissociation occurs often in traumatic experiences, and it all shows you that we have these circuits in the brain that has to do with a sense of self. And once in a while, it just feels like it would be better to see the self from the outside, which it can occur during sleep paralysis, as I said, where people will see themselves being eaten by a tiger. And the reason I think that occurs is because the self goes, “Probably right now, it would be better for me to just look at the whole thing from the outside to be detached and objective instead of being subjectively sort of living this whole thing of this tiger, you know, in a life-like scenario.”

KATE [VO]: Now, since our conversation began, I was itching to ask him if there’s anything I can do to stop my own sleep paralysis in the moment. Or how people who are being re-traumatized by these visions can break the cycle and get the rest they need. Thankfully, Baland told me about a therapy he developed.

BALAND: It’s a four-step solution that people would use during sleep paralysis. It goes something like this.

[MUX IN: OMINOUS LOW GROWLING-LIKE NOISE THAT TURNS INTO SLOWER, DRAWN-OUT VIOLIN NOTES]

BALAND: So Kate, when you have sleep paralysis, when the moment the terror strikes, the first thing you should do is that you should engage in what is known as cognitive reappraisal, a fancy name for reinterpreting the whole thing, saying, you know, I know that this is something that happens to people all around the world. It’s common, benign, temporary. Therefore, I shouldn’t be scared. Okay. And you close your eyes while doing all that. So this is the first thing you reinterpret the whole thing.

Now, a second step is known as emotional and psychological distancing, where you emotionally and psychologically sort of distance yourself from it. You say, “Since this is temporary, benign, not dangerous, there’s no need for me to be terrified and scared. In fact, if I am terrified and scared, that will only make the whole thing more terrifying and worse.” So you do this trick to soothe your brain a little bit.

KATE [VO]: Baland says step three is to focus your attention on one really positive or pleasant thought.

BALAND: Right. So this could be, you know, the face of your mother, could be something pleasant, a memory, it could be a prayer. Whatever is extremely emotionally powerful and profound for you, Kate. You think about that and in that way, you recruit all your attentional circuits onto that. And so you avoid having distractions pull away from your attention and make you sort of think about ghosts and have hallucinations and all that. It’s almost like the brain, we know it has limited attentional capabilities and capacities, and we want to sort of hijack your attention to ourselves, to positive things and in that way, change the lens by which you view the world in this way.

KATE [VO]: And finally, Baland says that the next time this happens, I just need to chill out. Relax my muscles and try to stay still. And don’t fight the rapid REM breathing.

BALAND: So you want to avoid all that and just go with the flow. And hopefully these four steps could be useful.

KATE: Thank you for that. Yeah, I mean, there’s so much to be curious about in that way, it’s such an ultimate mystery and as you said, this kind of border between ourselves, this image of ourselves and also where we begin, where we end, where consciousness kind of begins or maybe never ends.

BALAND: [laughs] Definitely. That’s true.

KATE: It’s so interesting to talk to you. Thank you.

BALAND: Thank you, Kate. Thank you, nice to meet you.

[MUX ENDS]

KATE [VO]: The more mysterious something is the more I’m hooked. So I called Dr. Chris Winter again. He’s a neurologist and sleep specialist. And I asked him if he had any other solutions to snapping out of sleep paralysis.

A man with dark blonde hair, wearing a light button up shirt.
“Sleep Whisperer” & Neurologist, Dr. Chris Winter

DR. CHRIS WINTER: A lot of people who experience it frequently will tell you if they move their eyes kind of back and forth or wiggle their tongue in their mouth — there’s little tricks they’ve figured out how to get out from under it quickly, because usually the, the muscles that are connected to nerves that come directly off of your brain are not affected.

KATE [VO]: I’m definitely going to try that, too. Chris said a number of his patients have experienced sleep paralysis.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: If a patient’s talking about their sleep, I might ask, “Has the witch ever ridden you at night?” And they’ll look at you like, “How do you know about the witch riding you? Like, my grandmother used to tell me about that.” In fact, I had a patient one time, said he would keep a knife, a fork, and a spoon under his pillow because his grandmother said, “If you keep a knife, fork, spoon under your pillow, the witch won’t ride you.”

KATE [VO]: In addition to anxiety or narcolepsy, Chris said sleep paralysis can happen when you’re really stressed. Or you’re experiencing jet lag. Basically, when your normal sleep patterns are broken. And that’s actually when Chris experienced sleep paralysis himself. It was when he was in college.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: So rather than being kind of terrified, it was like, “Oh, I don’t want this to disappear quickly because this is so interesting.” You know, I almost felt like my whole body was made out of lead.

[MUX IN: GENTLE GUITAR AND DRUM BEAT]

DR. CHRIS WINTER: One of the questions I always ask patients who say, “I can’t get up in the morning,” is, “If your house caught on fire, could you save yourself?” And I’m not sure I could have in that moment.

KATE [VO]: There’s sort of a recurring theme in this podcast and I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious to me before. Maybe it’s because in our society we don’t spend enough time thinking seriously about sleep. We’re so focused on being active, rushing to the next thing, and checking items off our to-do list. We prioritize action.

But so much of what we experience in our waking life reappears in our sleep. Hopefully it’s the good stuff, but sometimes it’s the stuff we’re trying hardest to forget.

[MUX OUT]

KATE [VO]: Now, Dr. Shelby Harris has been with me on this sleep journey from the beginning. So I couldn’t wrap up our last episode of the season without checking in with her.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Hi, how are you? It’s really nice to talk with you again!

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

KATE [VO]: You too, Shelby! Now, I’ve learned so much about how and why we sleep. And I really want to get your take on how our sleep is affected by the bad stuff, like trauma.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Trauma can influence sleep in many different ways. So, I tend to see it the most in my area for insomnia and then also for nightmares. So people can start to have nightmares in reaction to the trauma, if there’s post-traumatic stress issues. And what we see a lot of times in those patients is that they’re having more and more nightmares. The sleep is getting much more broken, which is why you might have some of those other REM phenomena happening, like sleep paralysis. But then there becomes a bit of, or a lot of, shall I say, when people have awakenings at night from a nightmare, then they start to get more fearful of wanting to go back to sleep. We actually have a scale called the fear of sleep scale, that we see a lot in patients who’ve experienced trauma. So we try to see how much they actually try to avoid going to sleep, which happens even more because they feel like the nighttime is just off-limits to them in a way.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: So, even though sleep can sometimes be scary, even for me, it’s also a lot more understandable now. Like, I can begin to process the complicated world of our unconscious lives. And some of that will require work on our trauma, and on our waking life. Because people who have experienced violence and hardship deserve rest too. Thank you, Shelby, for being such a great guide into sleep.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Always happy to help. Thanks for having me.

KATE [VO]: Now, as much as doctors Shelby Harris, Chris Winter and Baland Jalal have studied sleep, there are still so many issues that remain mysterious. And for Baland, it’s the complicated world of sleep paralysis that keeps calling him back.

BALAND: We’re barely scratching the surface. We still need to do imaging studies, various studies to understand what’s going on in the brain. And even though the paralysis is well known, it’s really the hallucinations, that’s the really captivating part, I think. I mean, the paralysis, yes, it’s fascinating. You’re being paralyzed, unable to move or speak. But why would you wake up and see a ghost, for God’s sake? I mean, why do people in Timbuktu, in Japan, in America see a ghost and tend to see the same thing, initially? But then they add on to that, the cultural layers and make it into a space alien or a ghost or witch or something like that, so. It is fascinating, isn’t it?

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC THROUGH END OF EPISODE]

KATE [VO]: My initial fascination with sleep started with my own dreams and keeping a dream journal. And now, after ten episodes of this podcast, I’ve learned a ton. We’ve explored so many facets of sleep, and I have to say, my mind is blown. I had no idea that our sleeping lives were so rich with mystery and science and culture. To be honest, I had no idea how truly important our sleep is, and how it shapes who we are. And yet, there is still so much more to discover.

Thanks for being on this journey with me this season. I hope you’ve learned something about your own relationship to sleep! And how, with everything going on in life, you can still find good, restorative rest. Or at least work towards it.

And I hope you’ll also embrace the mystery of sleep. Because I don’t think I’ll ever lay my head on a pillow again without wondering: What’s going to happen when I close my eyes?

If you’re just joining us, I hope you’ll go back and listen to anything you might have missed from this season. And please take a moment to review the show and let us know what you think, or what you’re still wondering about sleep. And if you know someone who might like this podcast, please pass it along. Personal recommendations are one of the best ways to get the word out.

“Are You Sleeping?” is an informational podcast and does not substitute medical advice. Contact your doctor if you’re seeking medical advice on your sleeping habits.

(CREDITS)

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