I was lying in bed, it felt so real that I hadn’t realized I fell asleep, but there was a figure on top of me. It looked more like a shadow than a face and it was choking me. I woke up once I stopped breathing. When I awoke, however, my hand was around my neck, but it wasn’t tightly gripped. Did I choke myself in my sleep? —Najah, Brooklyn, NY
Lauri: You have just had a fascinating physiological experience called Sleep Paralysis! Here’s the deal, when we sleep and enter the REM state, our brain releases a chemical that literally paralyzes our skeletal muscles so that we don’t act out our dreams. When we’ve had a fitful night of sleep or haven’t slept long enough, we will start to wake up before our brain can re-activate our muscle control, which causes us to get “stuck” in that in-between state of sleep and wakefulness called Hypnogogia. Now, about that dark, frightening creature in the room. That is still a mystery to many researchers, but I have a theory. We tend to have fitful nights of sleep because some negative force in our life is keeping us up. And in dream psychology, negative elements in our life often show up in our dreams in the form of a dark shadow or villainous character. The cure is to try to get your negative issues off your mind before bedtime. Try writing out what is bothering you at bedtime. Get it out of your mind and onto paper. Oh, and as far as you trying to choke yourself, I don’t believe you were. Your hand probably was simply resting there and you were conscious enough to be aware of it and your mind integrated the feeling of it into this experience.