Sleep Paralysis: Terrifying and Mysterious
Wed, April 14, 2021

Sleep Paralysis: Terrifying and Mysterious

Sleep paralysis has become a classic nightmare material for all of us. The idea of not being able to move as a shadowy figure approaches is extremely frightening / Photo by: belchonock via 123RF


Some of us might have experienced waking up in the middle of the night, unable to move or utter a sound. Many reported seeing a shadowy figure hovering in the corner or feeling pressure on their chest. Other times, they feel like they are floating. These strange experiences are known as sleep paralysis, a rare and sometimes disturbing sleep condition that results in feeling paralyzed while entirely lucid and alert. 

Sleep paralysis has become a classic nightmare material for all of us. The idea of not being able to move as a shadowy figure approaches is extremely frightening. The 2011 study “Lifetime Prevalence of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review” reported that around 7.6 percent of the world’s population has had at least one attack of sleep paralysis. However, the odds of experiencing this are higher for some people—31.9 percent of psychiatric patients and 28.3 percent of students have experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lives.

For the past decades, many people regard sleep paralysis as something paranormal. For instance, there have been a lot of references from folklore and myths that described the terrifying experience of being unable to move upon waking and sometimes seeing beings, being choked or held down. 

According to WebMD, the leading source for trustworthy and timely health and medical news and information, previous studies showed that people in countries as diverse as the US, Mexico, East Africa, and China believed that it is caused by demons, witches, or other supernatural creatures. While doctors and scientists have discovered why sleep paralysis happens to people, they are still unsure as to what causes the phenomenon in the first place.

Understanding Sleep Paralysis

When a person sleeps, their brain gives a command to their body’s voluntary muscles to relax and go into a state of paralysis called atonia. This restricts their physical movements in their dreams that helps in protecting the body from any external injury. In some cases, atonia doesn’t occur properly when a person has a sleep behavior disorder or during nightmares. As a result, the voluntary muscles move while the mind remains asleep. This explains why some people can do strange things while sleeping such as sleepwalking. 

However, the opposite happens in sleep paralysis. The body remains paralyzed while the brain awakens. During this state, a person is alert and conscious but unable to move the voluntary muscles. According to Live Science, a science news website that features groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, our culture, and history, sleep paralysis arises from disrupted REM sleep, which leaves a person paralyzed for seconds or minutes just as they are falling asleep or waking up. 

This sleeping condition often feels like a waking nightmare. This is because our minds are caught in the uncomfortable space between being awake and asleep. Many reported feeling an evil presence near them but just out of sight. Some experience out-of-body hallucinations, which can be equally quite disturbing. These hallucinations may also be a lingering manifestation of REM sleep. Daniel Denis, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, explained that the amygdala is highly active in REM—that part of the brain important for fear and emotional memory. 

"You have part of the brain actively responding to fear or something emotional, but nothing in the environment to account for that. So the brain comes up with a solution to that paradox,” he said. 

According to Verywell Health, an online site that features reliable, understandable, and credible health information and expert advice, there are several common features that characterize the symptoms of sleep paralysis. This includes visual and auditory hallucinations, a sense of breathlessness, faces or people may be seen at the bedside, and eye movements are typically preserved. It is believed that it is triggered by sleep deprivation, stress, and sleep schedule disruption.

A 2018 study also showed that sleep paralysis has a myriad of factors including genetics, substance use, a history of trauma, poor physical health, a psychiatric diagnosis, and poor sleep quality. 

This sleeping condition often feels like a waking nightmare. This is because our minds are caught in the uncomfortable space between being awake and asleep / Photo by: serezniy via 123RF


How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep

Unfortunately, researchers haven’t found a cure for sleep paralysis. Usually, doctors direct diagnosed patients to improve their sleep schedules and maintain a better bedtime routine. According to the National Health Society of the UK, some patients may be prescribed a low dose of antidepressants in more extreme cases.

Shelby Harris, director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York City, said: "If you have rare episodes of sleep paralysis, but haven't been seen by a sleep specialist, make sure your sleep hygiene is solid.” 

Also, it is advisable to don’t sleep on your back. Sleep experts have discovered a correlation between sleeping in a supine position and being vulnerable to sleep paralysis. It’s also important to see a sleep specialist if your paralysis occurs often considering the fact that it might be linked to other sleep disorders, including REM disruptions and narcolepsy. 

Although there is no denying that sleep paralysis can be a horrifying experience, the truth is there is nothing to be worried about. This condition only shows the importance of getting enough sleep and taking care of your body.