Some ten years ago, there was a period where I had persistent sleep paralysis. Almost every day. It was definitely one of my most terrifying experiences in my life. But I have overcome it since then, and today we’ll pay a closer look to it – in the name of science! (Thanks, Meaww!)
You know what sleep paralysis is? No? You’re one lucky person!
And no kidding, the image above gives a pretty accurate feel for this condition. Basically, during sleep paralysis, a person wakes in the middle of the night, fully aware. But, they are paralyzed, not being able to move their hands, legs, anything really. They can’t even speak, which is even worse because the paralysis often induces intense feelings of terror. To make matters even worse, you can even hallucinate sometimes. So what does it feel like? What IS it? Why does it happen? Read on and find out.
1. What science says
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: athleticform.us)
When we fall asleep, the brain sends a “shut down” signal to your body’s muscles. Basically, this helps you sleep better and not thrash around in your bed if you’re dreaming that you’re being chased by a giant cat, for example. But during sleep paralysis or related disorders, sometimes a glitch happens. An intense nightmare wakes you up, and you open your eyes. But thanks to the intense fear from the nightmare, your body is still “shut down”, hence the paralysis. If you are aware of it, however, and try to relax, the body should soon “wake up” making the paralysis go away.
2. Those intense feelings of dread and dying
Usually, the accompanying feelings make this phenomenon extra difficult to deal with. Here are some testimonies from users on Reddit:
“I had my first sleep paralysis when I was in high school. I was a Freshman or Sophomore. I fell asleep at my desk while studying. Suddenly, I became aware of my surroundings. I could see my desk and book. My mom walked in and moved stuff around. I tried to call out to her, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move my body either.” – SocialJusticeTemplar, Reddit
It would make a fine horror movie scenario, I tell you that!
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: viralsection.com)
Think that’s creepy? Here’s another one:
“I’ve been experiencing sleep paralysis when I was in high school till now due to stress. I was around 15-17 when it started but earlier today I experienced the scariest one yet. Usually whenever my SP starts to kick in, and when I say kick in I mean I can know or feel that my SP is going to happen.”
“How do I know? Well, if you experience SP a lot and by “a lot” I mean 3 times a night if I’m lucky, you can know. But earlier today, I didn’t notice. It just ambushed me in the middle of my sleep and this time, everything I try to do didn’t work. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move+I was in the worst sleeping position ever.
“Every time I have my SP, I would just normally count from 1-10 and try to relax or whenever I’m too tired, my exhaustion beats the SP and I fall back asleep. Those things didn’t work. It took me so long to wake up, I was so scared and desperate that I choked on my own fucking saliva!!! I thought it was the end!!!!!!!!” – KiriAsu, Reddit
3. How it actually happens
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: Asleepywolf)
Back to science: the onset of sleep paralysis happens during the process of waking up, or falling asleep. The body enters what is called an REM (“Rapid Eye Movement”) sleep, but must come out of it eventually. So, the problem occurs when the body can’t complete this transition. When it happens while falling asleep, it is called ‘hypnagogic’. When it occurs during waking up, the technical term is a ‘hypnopompic’ sleep paralysis.
4. The traditional explanation
Succubus: The sex demon (Source: unimaginablenightmares.blogspot.com)
Due to the psychological nature of the phenomenon, in time, people around the world created many fantastical stories in the attempt to explain these experiences. In Japan, for example, the experience of sleep paralysis is called ‘Kanashibar’, which means being bound in metal bars. On the other hand, their neighbors the Chinese refer to the condition as a ‘Ghost oppression’, while Americans often suspect alien abduction has something to do with it. In Africa, sleep paralysis is commonly referred to as ‘a devil riding your back’, while in other countries it is believed these are demons, called Incubus and Succubus, who want to have sex with people in their sleep.
5. Is it a nightmare or a hallucination? Or BOTH?
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: YouTube)
Sometimes, you can experience hallucinations too. What makes it even more horrible is that you can’t move, nor scream and you’re feeling helpless.
6. It can happen to everyone since it’s not a disease
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: Adventist HealthCare)
It’s 100% natural and can happen to anyone – you too. In fact, it’s possible you’ve already experienced it and just can’t remember it. However, people afflicted with mental illness and young adults are more likely to experience it.
7. Fuseli’s interpretation
Painting by Fuseli in the Renaissance period (Source: Alaska Sleep Clinic)
The fact that sleep paralysis has always existed is supported by the vast historical evidence that alludes to it. One such example is a painting by Henri Fuseli, a Swiss Renaissance painter. It’s pretty close to capturing the authentic feeling of a sleep paralysis!
8. Famous historical cases of sleep paralysis
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: WikiCommons)
The phenomenon has been noted by history since a long time ago. Some of the first descriptions can be found in ancient Persian medical texts, older than a millennia or more. The first actual observation of the phenomenon was made in 1664 by a Dutch physician. He believed that his patient, a fifty-year-old woman, was suffering from ‘nightmares’. Eventually, science got more precise and referred to it as ‘sleep palsy’ and finally ‘sleep paralysis’.
9. Your body is not yours anymore
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: Shutterstock)
It’s very difficult to make your body wake up and regain it, even when you’re aware of what’s going on. Some people can move small parts of their body, like their toes. But if you’re just patient enough, it will disappear. It usually happens for 20 seconds to several minutes. Not that long, right? Just don’t freak out, it will go away on its own.
10. It poses no real danger
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: Shutterstock)
While terrifying, it holds no actual danger. To date, there has been no record of any physical or psychological harm from this phenomenon. No deaths related to it, or caused by it either. So, it may sound cliche, but your best bet is to just relax and wait it out. The brain will soon fix the glitch.
11. What can you do to avoid it, though?
Picture for representational purpose only (Source: linkedin.com)
Science has been working on this for a while now, and at least a few studies show a consistency between sleep paralysis and sleep deprivation, severe stress or work-related exhaustion. While a complete explanation eludes us, it is best to keep yourself well rested and relaxed.