During sleep we enter a state of altered consciousness. While the brain remains active, our perception is largely reduced. Some sleep disorders disrupt this balance: sleepwalkers become physically active while remaining in a deep sleep and sleep paralysis can occur at the fringes of sleep. Sarah Jaffray takes us through the latter as she explores the stuff of nightmares.
“…and slowly waking from it – half steeped in dreams – I opened my eyes and the before sunlit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.”
– Ishmael, Chapter 4, Moby Dick
Today we use the term ‘nightmare’ to explain a generally frightening dream or unpleasant experience, but until the late 19th century the term night-mare (hyphen included) was exclusively descriptive of sleep paralysis, a sleep disorder in which the body is temporarily immobilised at the moment of waking or the moment of falling asleep. It is a minor, yet common, body/mind malfunction that upwards of 50% of the population claims to have experienced at least once in their lifetime.
Regular bouts of sleep paralysis can be a symptom of conditions like narcolepsy or PTSD, but sometimes these conditions do not provoke sleep paralysis at all. Random occurrences of sleep paralysis typically stem from periods marked by lack of sleep, medical or anaesthetic error or high levels of stress. The unpredictability of this parasomnia makes it all the more frightening when it happens. Continue reading