Sleep paralysis is a frightening phenomenon in which natural sleeping muscle atonia affects lucid dreams with false awakenings. "Atonia," or paralysis, is the natural state of being unable to move during sleep. Lucid dreams occur when the sleeper knows he's dreaming. False awakenings are when the dreamer thinks he has woken up, just to discover he hasn't. None of these are spiritual issues, but what happens in the dream might be.
What is sleep paralysis with false awakening? Is it a spiritual attack?
Muscle atonia during sleep is a natural neurological condition in which the body is disconnected from the experiences of the dreaming mind. Muscle atonia is necessary; without it, a person may sleepwalk or sleep eat. People with a medical condition called REM behavioral disorder act out their dreams, up to and including jumping out of third-story windows. Unfortunately, muscle atonia can make sleep paralysis difficult to escape.
A lucid dream is a dream in which the sleeper realizes he's dreaming. The awareness may come about when something ridiculous occurs that suspends disbelief. Or it may develop when the sleeper gently slips from waking thoughts to a dream state, inducing hypnagogic hallucinations. Hypnagogic dreams often begin with the dreamer hearing a loud cry, crash, or someone calling his name, or he may feel a falling sensation. Many who experience lucid dreams are able to control the dream to some extent—or even have some sense of the real world around them.
If a lucid dream becomes frightening, the dreamer may try to wake himself up. He'll open his eyes, perhaps seeing his own bedroom. Within moments, he realizes that the room is wrong—he never woke up. The cycle continues, causing the dreamer to panic, until he either wakes up or falls into a deeper REM state. It is the natural muscle atonia that makes it hard to waken; the dreamer may think he is opening his eyes or sitting up, but his body considers the effort the work of a lucid dream and prevents real physical movement.
To this point, there is nothing that would suggest a demonic attack. Muscle atonia, lucid dreaming, and false awakenings are all natural phenomenon. There are two other experiences, however, common to lucid dreamers, which might involve the supernatural.
The first is what feels like a heavy weight or pressure on the dreamer's chest. Often included is an image of a grotesque figure sitting on the sleeper's chest. This experience is common enough that different cultures have created mythologies surrounding the creature. In Scandinavia, it is a mare; in Africa and the American south, "the Devil on your back"; in the Middle East, a djinn; and in Asia, a ghost. Scientists would say that the figure is the mind's attempt to explain the feeling of pressure. It is unknown if the image is hallucinatory or spiritual.
The second phenomenon is related to the hag/ghost/djinn. It is the appearance of tall, dark, cloaked figures, often wearing a fedora. The figures may float, draw nearer, or dissolve, and they often appear too big for the room. Popular culture calls them "shadow people." Science claims they are the result of the mind trying to make sense of an ill-defined dream image. It is unknown if they are demonic.
Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by a feeling of terror. The feeling could come from an element in the dream, the appearance of a grotesque figure on the sleeper's chest, a reaction to the shadow people, or just a spontaneous, unexplainable fear. The sleeper will try to wake, but muscle atonia will only allow a false awakening.
It should be mentioned that this is not the same thing as a "night terror." A night terror occurs mostly in children, in a much deeper state of sleep. Muscle atonia breaks as the dreamer reacts violently to the fear, crying, screaming, and fighting against those who have come to comfort him. Upon waking, the dreamer usually has no memory of the dream.
There are tricks a dreamer may use to break a false awakening cycle. Avoid drugs and alcohol, and stick to a regular sleep schedule. Muscle atonia tends to keep a tight hold on major muscle groups, but the sleeper may be able to wiggle his fingers and toes. He may also be able to control his breathing, panting hard enough to wake his spouse.
If a dream djinn or shadow person appears, prayer can help. Jesus is Lord of our waking and sleeping (Psalm 139:2-3). You can train yourself to pray in your sleep.
Terror, whether from iconic figures or an undefined sense of malevolence, may be a sign of spiritual warfare. To prevent it, avoid all occultic and demonic interests while awake. It is foolish to think that paying attention to demons won't encourage them to return the favor. Pray to God for protection. Acknowledge Him as Lord of your whole life—waking and sleeping. "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety" (Psalm 4:8).
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