12 Facts You Need To Know About Sleep Paralysis

Do you wake up easily? Do you set three alarms? Are you “dead” to the world before you have had your first cup of coffee? How… Simi - May 24, 2018

Do you wake up easily? Do you set three alarms? Are you “dead” to the world before you have had your first cup of coffee? How fully awake are you in the morning? For most people, and in our brains, it takes a few minutes for our brains to switch on and be at a top functioning level.

A little like starting your computer – our “programming” and nervous system (and the link between our bodies and brains) takes a few minutes to warm up, in the mornings. That foggy morning feeling is not just because you are a night owl but because we’re exiting our sleep ‘program’ and switching on for the day. What happens if it doesn’t work?

Have you heard of a condition called sleep paralysis? It is something that we can all experience, but you may not have known about it before. It may be that you are awake but feel that you cannot move, or speak. It is often when you are waking up and is related to the stages of sleep. It can be that you have hallucinations too.

It is not related to underlying psychiatric disorders, and you may not even remember experiencing this. If you are awake though, it can be a scary experience and sleep paralysis can make you feel anxious or like you are having an out of body experience. It is a medical condition that is not fully understood. Over time, from Shakespeare’s days to modern times, people have thought that it was demons or spirits that invaded our body.

12. Symptoms of sleep paralysis

When you experience sleep paralysis, you can tell the difference between reality and a dream. You do not feel like you are dreaming but know you are awake and can make out the details of your immediate environment. You will know that your partner is there and see your alarm clock. The inability to move can lead to feelings of dread, fear and the perception that you are dying. People also report feeling a presence, or an outside force of some kind.

A feeling of terror, evil and a malevolent presence lead to overwhelming anxiety. You can experience difficulty breathing and feel tightness in your chest. There can be a sense that there is weight pressing down on your chest from an outside force. Generally, people experience this when they are lying on their back, and in a supine position. Most people do not fall asleep in the position.

In addition, there can be heightened sensory hallucinations – you may have olfactory hallucinations and a heightened sense of smell, you can also have auditory hallucinations. People have reported hearing footsteps, scratching sounds or whispers, animals growling and smells that are related to death. You may smell damp, mold or decay, and feel like you are hot or cold, or floating.

The experience of physical paralysis was linked in ancient time to evil spirits and demons. The mental hallucinations and fear may be caused by anxiety and increased adrenaline, making your senses sharper and changing your perception of your immediate environment – similar to the flight or fight response. However, the major symptom is that you are not able to move, and it may be coupled with more symptoms like hallucinations, and a feeling of dread.

11. Are You Sleep Deprived?

If you are not getting your 8 hours or have been very stressed, then your chances of developing sleep paralysis are much higher. People who have been through long periods of physical and mental exhaustion are for more at risk than people who get regular sleep. Experts have been trying to understand the reasons and explanation for sleep paralysis but have do not have an in-depth explanation of this condition as yet. Researchers believe that the normal regulation of the brain and body during sleep and wakefulness has become dysfunctional.

When we fall asleep our brain normally ‘switches’ our body off. We cannot physically act out our dreams, and our muscles are in a semi-state of paralysis. This is a natural part of the deep sleep cycle, but during sleep paralysis, the person is conscious and awake but cannot move their muscles. Normally it occurs when a person is coming out of REM sleep and accompanied by rapid eye movement.

Some researchers believe that sleep paralysis may be genetic. People who have narcolepsy (A condition where you fall asleep uncontrollably.) are also more likely have sleep paralysis. Sleep experts have reported that between 25% and 50% of Americans have had sleep paralysis in their lives, at least once. A disrupted sleep schedule, such as experiencing bad jet-lag or studying all night, can also cause sleep paralysis. There is also a link between social anxiety and panic disorders and sleep paralysis.

Experiencing sleep paralysis can be a highly traumatic experience. It is something people have experienced across all cultures across the globe. From China and East Africa to Mexico and Newfoundland there have been cases of sleep paralysis. The superstitions and beliefs in demonic and supernatural possession have been common across cultures, even that a demon may be trying to have relations with people and sitting on their chests. In extreme cases, people have even suggested alien abduction may be the cause.

10. There is no danger

Although it may feel like you are dying, or that you are having a heart attack and have become paralyzed there is no physical danger. It is a terrifying experience, but there is no actual danger to your body. There have been no reported cases of clinical death or illness that have been caused by sleep paralysis. The symptoms may feel very real – from the inability to move your muscles, to the experience of hallucinations. You may feel the temperature changes, or a sensation of floating, or not being able to breathe. However, these sensations will pass, and your normal senses and bodily function will resume. There is a disconnect between your brain and body, your sleeping brain and body, and your perception of reality.

What can you do? The secret is to remain as calm as you can and to remind yourself that this experience is not really ‘real.’ You need to try and refocus your mental energy away from feelings of dread and panic, and that you are safe, and will not come to any harm at all. You need to use your inner monologue and tell yourself that while it may feel like forever, that you will be okay. Keep your self-talk positive and try not to let anxiety run away with itself. Anxiety and panic can lead to shortness of breath, and a feeling like you are dying but is related to fear, not a physical reality. Keep reassuring yourself that you are safe and not in any danger.

Your mind and body are playing tricks on each other, but the secret is to keep your mind focused on being calm. Do not let panic and fear take over, or be fearful of any hallucination, smell or sound that seems otherworldly. These are not real but symptoms of the disconnect in your sleeping, dreaming and wakeful state of your brain.

9. Your Body Is Still Asleep

The terror and fear that you experience and feeling of paralysis is because your body is literally still asleep. Your conscious mind has woken up, but your muscles and physical ability to move is still ‘switched‘ off. This means that you have lost control over your voluntary muscles. This system works differently to involuntary muscles that are not consciously controlled by us. Think about breathing, blinking your eyes or sneezing. The body works using two separate systems.

When you get out of bed, you are consciously directing your movement, with thoughts about moving and actions that follow. Your bodily movement is controlled by the brain. Involuntary muscles control other mechanisms in our body that are not dependent on conscious thought. For example, when we breathe, our diaphragm contracts and rib cage expand and contracts. Our lungs fill up with air, and then we expel air. Our hearts similarly beat and pump blood through our blood vessels to our organs. Both of these are not controlled by our minds on a conscious level. You do not have to remember to breathe or have direct control over these muscles.

Reaching for your tea, and walking to the shower, on the other hand, need control and instructions from your mind. It may not feel like you are consciously directing your actions, especially in the morning when you walk to the loo. It may seem like you are on ‘auto-pilot,’ but you are the pilot none the less. Sleep paralysis and not being able to control your muscles is because your voluntary muscle control ‘program’ is not functioning. It is there and will be restored but it temporarily disabled.

No matter how hard you try to move your body, like wiggling your toes or moving your face, you will not be able to. A few people are able to move their fingers and toes, but no major movements. These small movements do help people to reconnect with their body, but sleep paralysis can last anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes.

8. Sleep Paralysis Through the Ages

Dating back to 400 B.C. there are written accounts of sleep paralysis in Chinese medicine. Greek physicians discussed the condition as early as 200 B.C. (Galen). Throughout history, this condition was often attributed to supernatural phenomena, and the original meaning of ‘nightmare’ comes from this experience, where one is awake but has no control over the body. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, superstition was the order of the day. Scores of people would immediately jump to some wild conclusion which often involved magic or witchcraft when they were faced with what we now know to be some medical condition. This was too the case with sleep paralysis.

A few hundred years ago people did not realize that the visions during sleep paralysis were hallucinations. They thought that there was the foul play of witchcraft involved. From what we can tell, sleep paralysis may have even been the cause of the supposed evidence which was flung at potential witches during the Salem witch trials. Both Susan Martin and Bridget Bishop were accused of committing heinous acts which could very well have simply been attributed to sleep paralysis. Witches are not the only ones who have wrongly taken the blame for this condition, aliens stand right next to them as the accused.

Alien abduction stories tend to vary a bit among individuals but there is a general theme, and that is sleep. Either these abductions happen whilst one is asleep or in the dark hours of the night. This is not the only thing which would point towards these abductees suffering from sleep paralysis as opposed to an actual abduction. Not only do a fair amount of these people actually have a history of sleep paralysis. But the alleged abduction is strikingly similar to that of a sleep paralysis experience.

It was only in 1664 when a doctor finally observed this event. This was the Dutch physician Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck. He documented the event and called it a nightmare. He did also go on to say that he believed there had been medical professionals who had known about this condition in the past.

7. Sleep Paralysis in art

It is clear that this condition does not discriminate based on culture or race. There are varying reports of it on every continent of the globe and basically by every culture. Obviously, the interpretation of the condition is different depending on the prevailing superstitions of the time and area.  It is therefore completely logical to presume that there must be some sort of artistic depictions of this phenomenon. Whether the artist is aware of the psychological nature of the event or they think it really is a demon or witch that is sitting on the victim’s chest is entirely irrelevant.

The fact remains that if one is curious about a visual representation of sleep paralysis, then they really do not need to look very far. One of the most famous and possibly one of the first depictions of this was done by Henry Fuseli. This painting was called The Nightmare, and it was completed 1781. In this painting, we see a woman who is depicted lying down in the center of the image. In the background there appear to]be strange and potentially terrifying creatures. The most notable feature of this painting is the demon.

It is sitting directly on her chest. These elements together clearly indicate sleep paralysis. The woman does not appear to be struggling, and neither is she fully conscious. The demon placed on he chest would produce the feeling of breathlessness. We, therefore, have a very real depiction of the condition.

While this is not the only available painting of sleep paralysis, it is possibly the most famous. It is also thought by many to be the greatest piece of artwork that Fuseli ever produced. Whether he himself suffered from sleep paralysis is another question entirely. It is clear however that he was quite well acquainted with the condition. 

6. This is natural. It is by no means a disease

While modern medicine is a marvel, it has also made people more prone to hypochondria. They will not wait a day or two to see if the sniffles will naturally go away. Rather they do a quick internet search and ultimately decide that they have some form of cancer. This shocking discovery is then accompanied by a rushed trip to the doctor. Where the appointment starts with something like ‘’Doc, my nose started running yesterday, so I went online, and I think I have cancer”. Granted, there are elements of hyperbole to this, but if you are being honest with yourself, you will probably admit to doing or even thinking something similar.

Now, this isn’t to say that you must avoid doctors at all costs. This is not the dark ages, and you should by no means rub some dirt in it. But, in the case of sleep paralysis why not take a deep breath before diagnosing yourself with schizophrenia or some other terrifying condition. It can happen to literally anyone, and it even happens naturally.

There is no taking away from the pure terror that is sleep paralysis. It can leave one absolutely horrified by the prospect of getting into bed again. But, just for the sake of clarity, it is not a disease. It actually happens to everyone at least once in their lifetime. Not all of these people remember the incident, but you can guarantee that it probably has happened.

There are some who are unlucky in the sense that the symptoms may be worse for them than another sufferer. There are also cases which suggest that sleep paralysis is more common in people who have diagnosed mental disorders and young adults. If you have just experienced your first bout of sleep paralysis, then this is not necessarily the time to panic. The chances are it was going to happen at some point, and there is no reason to believe that it will be a recurring event.

5. A nightmare and a hallucination

Included in the symptoms list for sleep paralysis, hallucinations and nightmares are regulars. But, they are nothing like the run-of-the-mill nightmares that you have when you are asleep. The hallucinations are also not like that mushroom trip that that guy that you met was going on about. They can, unfortunately, be a whole lot worse than either of these two events.

Maybe you have watched the latest horror movies which are putting the goosebumps back on every unsuspecting viewer’s spine. You reckon that you can handle it, you are an adult after all. But that night when you go to sleep, the dreamscape is filled with every horror you could possibly imagine. There are snakes, there are spiders, you are falling from a cliff and being chased by something you can neither see nor hear, but you are very sure that it is chasing you. This is a nightmare and is probably not sleep paralysis. Why can that be said with so much certainty?

Well, if you are well and truly asleep, then it is just a nightmare. Sleep paralysis is a lot more conscious than that. When you are experiencing this, your mind is for all intents and purposes awake. It is not battling dragons on a foreign shore. It is right here, right now and in this room. What’s more, is that it is believing what it is seeing.

Once your mind is awake, even partially, it knows that it is awake. It has therefore entered into a state of rationality where if it sees something then it must be real. Our eyes can definitely play tricks on us, but a hallucination is not as innocuous as that. The hallucinations during sleep paralysis are terrifying because you think they are real. And not in the same way that you think a dream is real while you are in it. The intensity is entirely more elevated than that.

4. The folk tales involving sleep paralysis

It has already been mentioned that witches were blamed in America for sleep paralysis. There are a few accounts of this, but this is just one interpretation of the condition and only at one time in history.

Seeing as how basically everyone will experience it at some point, the next logical step is to assume that there must have been other theories which were thought up to try and explain what was happening to these people. Throughout time, cultures have claimed to have been plagued by some omen or supernatural creature. These vary by continent and are culturally specific, but you can always bet that they do exist. As a race, we are unfortunately prone to superstitious tendencies.

Kanashibar is the term that the Japanese used for the condition of sleep paralysis. It literally means that a person is bound by metal. Who or what bound the metal and why that specific person was bound are questions which would require more research. The Chinese, on the other hand, went a different direction. They believed that ghosts were responsible. This form of oppression was either achieved by the ghost actually sitting on the victim or by them using their spooky and unknown ghostly properties to produce the feeling of weight on a person’s chest.

When you move on to Africa, you find the devil and his demon minions. These were called Incubus and Succubus. They explained sleep paralysis by saying that the devil was riding on your back. This is not to say that you were been ridden like a horse, but rather there are sexual connotations here. They actually believed that while a person was suffering from sleep paralysis, demons were actually having sex with their victims while they slept. In the modern world, there are fewer accounts of these kinds of tales. Instead, they have been replaced with supposed alien abductions of encounters.

3. How and when does this occur

When a person goes to sleep, they go through phases. The entire 7 or 8 that you are snuggled up in bed is not one whole phase. There are actually 5 phases that make up the sleep cycle, and it can take up to 90 minutes to work your way through all of them. During the first four stages, you experience non-rapid eye movement sleep. A person does not move much during this type of sleep, but their muscles are still functioning. As seen in the name, there is no eye movement that is associated with this type of sleep.

When a person goes to sleep, they start at stage one which is a very light sleep. They then process down the stages, and as such, the sleep gets a lot deeper. If a person has reached the 4th stage, it will be incredibly difficult to wake them up. There is not much dreaming that goes on during these sleep phases.

The last phase of the sleep cycle is characterized by rapid-eye-movement sleep. During this phase, the only part of the body that is able to move is the eyes. The heart still beats, and the lungs still move, but there is no other voluntary movement. The eyes tend to dart back and forth for no apparent reason. It is thought that this is due to people following images with their eyes while dreaming. This is where the majority of ones dreaming takes place.

Sleep paralysis can happen either when one is falling asleep or waking up. It is when a person has difficulty moving in or out of the rapid-eye-movement phase. Sleep paralysis while falling asleep is hypnagogic, and if it is experienced when waking up, then it is hypnopompic.

2. The dying feeling that accompanies sleep paralysis

Fear of death is written in the very DNA of human beings. We are all very aware of the fact that we are all going to die. It is not a possibility. It is a certainty. And yet, we fear it. We dread it, and we even pour billions of dollars into researching how we can actually prolong life. There are many reasons why people fear their own mortality. If they believe that there is nothing after death, then they fear the total cessation of their existence. Those who are unsure of what comes after may fear the unknown, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Then there are people who don’t want to die because they simply enjoy living. They enjoy the experience as a whole, with the heartaches and happiness that it offers.

This fear is a constant feature of human existence. And death becomes even more terrifying when we actually come face-to-face with it. This can happen to some degree in sleep paralysis. It is not because you stand there looking at the chopping block. This fear emanating from the feeling of death and despair which may be inspired by sleep paralysis.

There are times when the dread and the fear is so overwhelming that people actually think they are dying. It becomes a reality all too suddenly.  Once they realize that they are not dying there is generally an overwhelming sense of relief.

Once a person has regained autonomy over their body they can breathe a sigh of relief as the realization dawns that they are alive and will probably be alive for the foreseeable future. This is all well and good. But, there is a time when you can’t move, you have no power or control and do truly believe that this is the end. This element is possibly the most terrifying part of sleep paralysis.

1. Sleep paralysis explained by science

Science may not have all the answers, but it the matter of sleep paralysis they seem to have a theory which seems far more plausible than an Incubus or Succubus sitting on your chest. It has already been clarified that sleep paralysis involves the rapid-eye-movement cycle (REM). We know that during this time a person has no voluntary movement and they experience very vivid dreams. The reason for this muscle paralysis is thought to be an evolutionary adaption that is meant to protect a person.

When a person is experiencing an intense dream if they were given free reign to move as much and however they pleased, there arises the possibility or injury. The brain, therefore, has adapted to combat this. When a person enters the REM stage of the sleep cycle, there are two neurotransmitters that are released. These are glycine and GABA. Both of these are required for the paralysis of voluntary muscles. In the event of sleep paralysis, there is a mishap involving the REM cycle. A person either transitions badly out of it or into it.

When this happens, the neurotransmitters are released which effectively stop muscle movement and yet the person’s mind does not enter the dreamscape. Their mind is in the here and now, but their body believes that it is dreaming. This miscommunication or disconnect is what we refer to as sleep paralysis.

The brain and the body are however able to communicate very quickly, and it should not take too long to correct the mistake. The secretion of the paralyzing chemicals is stopped while what is left in circulation is taken back up. Once this is effectively done, a person should be able to move their limbs once more. While sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience, it should be noted that there is no real danger. There are no documented cases of people dying from sleep paralysis.