Most people have experienced sleep paralysis at some point. But is this phenomenon that temporarily paralyzes someone a spiritual disorder or a medical condition? ADEOLA OTEMADE provides the answer in this report.
Shola (not her real name) suffered at the hands of those who claimed to have spiritual gifts. She no longer frequented praying mountains and riverbanks, but spent her fortune on candles and incense sticks to drive away evil spirits from her room both day and night, especially when she was asleep.
Her ordeal began when she realized that on a particular night, despite being fully aware of her surroundings, she was unable to move her hands or lift her body out of bed. On other nights, even when another person was in the room with her, she was unable to call for help or get up or move her body.
“I can’t say exactly when or what year I suffered from sleep paralysis,” she told the Sunday Tribune. “But I do remember being in my late 20s at the time; It started with not being able to move any part of my body. Even though I would be fully awake, I would have trouble getting out of bed.
“It got worse that sometimes the paralysis comes with someone’s presence in the room with me or I feel like I’m being choked, making me unable to call for help or call out the name of Jesus.
“I started visiting pastors, seeking deliverance of all kinds, buying incense sticks to drive evil spirits out of my room, and reading psalms, and you know, still nothing changed,” she said, writing it like many people do often do too to some spiritual connections and attacks.
But what is sleep paralysis and how does it happen? Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak while sleeping or waking up. According to medical experts, sleep paralysis is most common in people suffering from narcolepsy or sleep apnea, but it can affect anyone.
More than 1.5 million Nigerians suffer from sleep paralysis, according to a study made available online by the University of Ibadan’s College of Medicine. Although there are myths surrounding sleep paralysis, many believe it is spiritual and that some spiritual forces are at work, others believe it is the work of the devil.
Ame Johnson, a college student who shared her experience with the Sunday Tribune, said whenever she experienced sleep paralysis, she tried as much as possible to quiet her mind, and then slowly tried wiggling a finger or flicking a toe wiggle.
“It felt like I lost control of my body; My spirit was awake but my body refused to get up. Worst of all, sometimes it got serious I felt like someone was pinning me to the bed. I really don’t know what’s causing it, but I told my mother and she said to get free, which I did because she believed it was something spiritual. It’s gotten better now that I’m sleeping well these days,” she said.
Tosin Olaniyan was scared when he experienced sleep paralysis. Olaniyan, a graphic designer, said he used to dream about it sometimes.
“The experience is kind of scary … even in my sleep I would daydream about forcing or dragging someone. Whenever I tried to call out the name of Jesus, my mouth would freeze and I could not speak. I would then wake up and try to scream it.”
For Joseph Chima, a student, the experience was always frightening for him. Most of the time it felt like he was almost dead but then woke up and realized he had been asleep. But even after he was fully awake, he found he couldn’t move his body while his heart was racing.
“You wake up and think you almost died. But then you realize you’ve been sleeping. Then you wondered if your experience was a lie. No, it wasn’t a lie at all. Was it a dream? Not exactly. But only those who have had similar experiences will understand.”
Omolara Adeyemi, a nurse at Randle General Hospital Surulere, explained that sleep paralysis is a medical condition and not a spiritual condition. But according to her, many people believe that it is a spiritual problem that stems from societal beliefs.
“It’s a neurological disorder,” she explained. “And it happens when you’re in the REM (rapid eye movement) state, that is, half asleep, which means you’re not sound asleep. It’s terrible when you fight back because your muscles are immobile at that moment. However, if you are calm and just relax, you will get rid of it sooner. You may even feel like someone is in the room with you. What I do is just relax and not force it because the more you try to pull away from it, the crazier it gets.”
A spiritual or medical condition?
according to dr Kehinde Abiodun, board-certified neurologist, Federal Medical Center, FCT, Abuja, “Sleep paralysis is a condition during waking or falling asleep in which a person is conscious but unable to move or speak. Episodes generally last from a few seconds to a few minutes and can be single or recurring. Sleep paralysis is a normal part of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
But Abiodun said while REM could be normal, sleep paralysis can also become a medical condition. According to him, “If it occurs outside of the REM sleep time frame, it is considered a disorder. Normally, when you fall asleep or wake up, your brain sends signals to the muscles in your arms and legs, causing them to relax. However, during sleep paralysis, consciousness is regained with perceptions of inability to move, often accompanied by hallucinations leading to anxiety. Sleep paralysis affects men and women equally. Eight percent of the general population and 28 percent of college students will experience at least one episode in their lifetime.”
He explained further and listed the possible causes of the phenomenon. “Sleep paralysis is more likely when a person is under stress. Factors that have been linked to sleep paralysis include narcolepsy, irregular sleep patterns (jet lag or shift work), supine sleeping (on your back), family history of sleep paralysis. as well as other conditions such as depression, migraines, obstructive sleep apnea, high blood pressure and anxiety disorders.
However, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, a well-known author and Ifa priest who is also the Araba of Osogbo in Osun State, holds a different view, far from medical. According to him, the sleep disorder has a spiritual ring to it that could be the work of witches and other evil forces.
According to Chief Elebuibon, wall geckos and witches sometimes play a major role in the occurrence of paralysis during sleep or upon waking. The presence of a wall gecko in the home, he said, could cause the sleeper to become paralyzed. “Another reason could be that the paralyzed person has been punished by witches or evil people, requiring spiritual counseling.”
Chief Elebuibon explained the Yoruba belief in wall geckos. “The Yoruba believe that a person having this experience is because a wall gecko is in the house and is depressing the person. Another reason is when a person is being punished or in bondage to witches and evil people when they don’t want the person to be prosperous, this is how it happens.”
Is sleep paralysis harmful?
According to Abiodun, “Sleep paralysis is not physically harmful and can be prevented. It’s basically a disruption of the normal physiological response during sleep. However, it could be associated with various experiential phenomena.
“Sleep paralysis is brief and not life-threatening, but the person may remember it as haunting and terrifying.”
Further explaining, Abiodun listed common consequences of sleep paralysis as headaches, muscle pain, weakness or paranoia. Humans, he said, may experience hallucinations, such as the presence of an “intruder” in the room, the presence of an “incubus,” and the sensation of “levitation.” Dreams during sleep paralysis are vivid and are often accompanied by feelings of terror, such as feelings of suffocation or an evil presence trying to strangle the person while they are asleep.
Solutions for sleep paralysis
But how is sleep paralysis treated? Both Chief Elebuibon and Dr. Abiodun agreed that there are solutions to the condition depending on the beliefs of the sufferer.
The solution, according to Elebuibon, is to first try to understand the source of the problem. He claimed that even if it is induced by the presence of wall gecko, there is more to it.
“Most of the time it’s caused by wall geckos. People experiencing this should seek treatment from the lfa priest. The Ifa priest will consult the oracle and relay Ifa’s message to the person. Treatment usually consists of making sacrifices to appease the forces troubling the person.”
In his own statement, Dr. Abiodun that experiencing sleep paralysis is not harmful and that it is possible to end sleep paralysis with just a few adjustments to one’s sleep pattern.
“If you occasionally suffer from sleep paralysis, there are steps you can take at home to control this disorder. Make sure you get enough sleep; Do what you can to reduce stress in your life, especially just before bed. If you sleep on your back, you may need to change your sleeping position. And definitely see your doctor if sleep paralysis routinely prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep,” Abiodun advised.