Sleep Paralysis & SUNDS | Health Blog

The Nightmare You Don’t Wake From

Maybe A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t just Hollywood make-believe.  The terrifying movie and its sequels featured a demon-like character named Freddy Kruger who invaded people’s dreams and killed them while they slept.  Now, there is a theory that this may not be a totally unrealistic concept.

Shelley Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, trained in medical anthropology research, has written a book called Sleep Paralysis: Nightmares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection.1  She makes a strong case for the incredible power of our mind and beliefs…and how they can even lead to death.

Adler spent time studying the strange case of the Hmong men — immigrants from Laos to America.  In the early 1980s, 117 of them died in their sleep.  Aside from one of them, they were all healthy and young, with a median age of just 33.  Yet after living in various parts of the United States for a period of months, they began to pass away.  The medical community was confounded, but gave their condition the name Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS).  A name was all it got because they couldn’t come up with any other answers about what was killing these men off.

Adler has researched “nocturnal pressing spirit attacks,” which is known as sleep paralysis to scientists — or just plain old nightmares to the rest of us.  There are beliefs about this sleep disturbance, often considered some type of evil spirit, documented in the traditions of many cultures.  What scientifically takes place during an episode of sleep paralysis is basically a bodily screw up.  During the REM state of sleep, we do our dreaming, but our minds do not exercise physical control over our bodies. In other words, although we may dream of running, our legs do not move in kind.  It’s no big deal, since we are unconscious.  However, during sleep paralysis, we have the illusion of being “awake,” but as with regular dreaming still cannot consciously move. This creates that awful feeling of fear and incapacitation that is typically described by those who have experienced it. Nevertheless, at some level, we are aware that we are experiencing a nightmare and struggle to “awake” from it.

Not so much for the Hmong.  Their society holds strong beliefs that if they are not worshipping correctly then the spirits of their ancestors will not protect them, leaving them vulnerable to attack from an evil spirit that can kill them while they sleep.  As United States immigrants, they were scattered and didn’t have the same type of community settlements other groups did, making religious rituals and worship, as well as access to a shaman, much more difficult.  So basically, the Hmong strongly believed that the night spirits were able to kill them off. In other words, it was their belief in the power of the nightmare that killed them.

Which brings us to the power of the mind over the body.  There have been plenty of other case studies of belief causing bodily harm.  One of Adler’s own examples in her book was about Chinese-Americans with lung disease who were believers in astrology and who were born in a year astrologically associated with lung problems. They died five years sooner than other people with the same illness who did not match both those criteria.

This concept is nothing new to readers of Jon Barron’s book Lessons from the Miracle Doctors.  He dedicates a whole chapter to “The Thought that Kills.” As he says:

“For years, stress and/or depression have been suspected of somehow increasing the risk of contracting numerous infectious diseases. In addition, there is mounting evidence that increased levels of stress and depression also correlate with an increased incidence of cancer. And finally, there is a strong statistical link between stress and depression and death itself. As a result, a relatively new field of research, psychoneuroimmunology, is dedicated to unlocking the connection between thoughts (i.e., our nervous systems) and the immune system.”

Now, we can’t — and wouldn’t want to — change anyone’s traditional belief system.  But we can all try to take the time to do what is important to us and to our bodies.  Reducing stress and depression can go a long way toward improving your overall well-being.  It can be as simple as learning to meditate, visualizing your own health, and practicing positive affirmations.  All of that will be helped along by adopting a program like the Baseline of Health to correct hormone imbalances and rid the body of toxins and free radicals.  Exercise and proper nutrition round out the regimen.  Then you can be on your way to a mind-body connection that fights disease and keeps you feeling great.

1 Madrigal, Alexis. “When dreams kill: The phenomenon of sleep paralysis.” The Week. 14 October 2011.  The Week Publications, Inc. 28 November 2011. <>.