Over the centuries, the symptoms associated to sleep paralysis have been considered as a proof of an “evil” presence: unseen night demons in ancient times, the old hag in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and alien abductors.
Almost every culture around the world has its scary stories of shadowy evil creatures that terrify helpless humans at night. They were a result of the struggle of people to find an explanation of the mysterious sleep-time paralysis and the terror it causes.
Sleep paralysis is a condition which occurs between the stages of sleep and wakefulness, and the person is conscious, but cannot move. It is a strange and frightening phenomenon, as people cannot voluntarily control their movements, but fortunately, it does not cause any physical harm in the body.
Yet, it is accompanied by hypnagogic experiences, which are visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations, which can belong o one of these three categories:
- Intruder: The person listens to sounds of doorknobs opening, shuffling footsteps, a shadow man, or sense of a threatening presence in the room.
- Incubus: The person feels pressure on the chest, difficulty breathing with the sense of being smothered, strangled or sexually assaulted
- Vestibular-motor: A sense of spinning, falling, floating, flying, hovering over the body or some other sort of out-of-body experience.
Fortunately, this is a relatively common occurrence and does not cause any physical harm to the body. Sleep paralysis happens during one of two stages -“hypnagogic” (before falling asleep) and “hypnopompic” ( as one wakes from REM sleep).
The body fully relaxes as we fall asleep, but the mind becomes less aware, and during the hypnagogic sleep paralysis occurs, it is aware while the body achieves an involuntary state of relaxation, and the inability to move often causes panic.
In the case of hypnopompic sleep paralysis, a certain part of the brain wakes sooner, but it does not affect the brain part responsible for REM paralysis, leading to a certain extent of wakefulness and no voluntary control over muscles.
While some people experience this only once or twice in their lives, some people suffer from this phenomenon a few times a week.
Studied have shown that people with mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are more prone to frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, as well as people taking certain medications, suffering from sleep apnea, and those with an underlying sleep condition.
These are the risk factors:
- Lack of sleep
- Frequent changes in sleep pattern
- Sleeping on the back
- Mental conditions, like stress or bipolar disorder
- Sleep problems like narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps
- Substance abuse
- Certain types of medication
Individuals who experience such episodes claim that they are unable to move or speak for a few seconds, and this usually happens during the initial stages of falling asleep and almost immediately after waking up.
There is no prescribed treatment for his condition, but in case a medical professional detects an underlying condition in the process of diagnosis, he might suggest a treatment regimen, such as:
- Sleeping aids
- Implementation of a sleeping schedule
- Referral to a mental health professional
- Referral to a sleep specialist
- Treatment of any underlying sleep disorders
In most cases, sleep paralysis is efficiently controlled by having a healthy sleep pattern and lowering stress. It is also recommended to avoid the use of electronic devices in the bedroom before going to sleep, and avoiding or severely restricting alcohol/drugs, nicotine and caffeine.
However, in case you experience a sleep paralysis episode again remember to stay calm, as it will pass in a few seconds.