Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a frightening form of paralysis that occurs when a person suddenly finds himself or herself unable to move for a few minutes, most often upon falling asleep or waking up.

Physiologically, it is closely related to the normal paralysis that occurs during REM sleep, also known as REM atones.

Sleep paralysis is due to an ill-timed disconnection between the brain and the body. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain is awakened from a REM state into essentially a normal fully awake state, but with the bodily paralysis still occurring.

This causes the person to be fully aware, but unable to move. In addition, this state is usually accompanied by certain specific kinds of hallucinations.

What happens in the brain during sleep paralysis?

During sleep, we go through different stages of sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage is the stage where dreaming occurs. In this stage, a mechanism is created that protects us from acting our dreams; this is called “muscular atonia”.

Muscular atonia basically means that all the muscles in our body will be suppressed during REM sleep (except the diaphragm and muscles of the eyes). This atonia comes to an end when we move to another stage of sleep or upon awakening.

But at times something goes wrong; the person wakes up during REM sleep and this protective mechanism “atonia” does not come to an end. This creates an incapability to move (paralysis), and as the brain was just dreaming, this may result in terrifying hallucinations.

There are two major types of sleep paralysis: common (typical) also known as CSP and hallucinatory (hypnagogic) sleep paralysis known as HSP.

Common Sleep Paralysis (CSP):

The Common Sleep Paralysis for most people, happens, during REM state, when the body releases hormones that paralyze the body to keep it from acting out dreams, thereby reducing any chances of physical harm during sleep.

These hormones usually wear off before the dream ends and the person will then wake up with full use of all body functions. For someone who suffers from Sleep Paralysis, the body’s hormones are still actively restraining the motor functions and muscle groups of the body.

So the person wakes up to find that he/she is temporarily paralyzed and does not know why. The Common Sleep Paralysis usually only lasts from few seconds to a minute or two in total, though sometimes it can go a little longer.

Hallucinatory (hypnagogic) Sleep Paralysis (HSP):

The Hallucinatory Sleep Paralysis is different from Common Sleep Paralysis because it can last up to 8 minutes long.

Sometimes it runs in families. It is not harmful, although most people report feeling very terrified because they do not know what is happening, and within minutes they slowly or rapidly are able to move again; the event is often ended by a sound or a touch on the body. People who tend to sleep on their backs can also experience sleep paralysis.

In some cases, when ‘hypnogogic’ (inability to perform voluntary movements during sleep) hallucinations are present, people often hear footsteps and feel that someone is in the room with them – usually a fearful presence or an evil entity. Some go further and feel as though someone or something is actually sitting or lying on them and they feel like they are going to suffocate or die. This has been called the “Hag Phenomena” or “Old Hag Syndrome” and has been occurring to people over the centuries.

“Hag Phenomena” or “Old Hag Syndrome”

The name of the phenomenon comes from the belief that a witch – or an old hag – sits or “rides” the chest of the victims, rendering them immobile. The perplexing and often very frightening nature of the phenomenon leads many people to believe that there are supernatural forces at work such as ghosts or demons.

The experience is so frightening because the victims, although paralyzed, seem to have full use of their senses. In fact, it is often accompanied by strange smells, the sound of approaching footsteps, apparitions of weird shadows or glowing eyes, and the oppressive weight on the chest, making breathing difficult if not impossible. All of the body’s senses are telling the victims that something real and unusual is happening to them. The spell is broken and the victims recover often on the point of losing consciousness. Fully awake and well, they sit up, completely baffled by what just happened to them since now the room is entirely normal.

Confronted with such a bizarre and irrational experience, it’s no wonder that many victims fear that they have been attacked in their beds by some malevolent spirit, demon or, perhaps, an alien visitor.

The phenomenon, now known and explained by medical science as Sleep Paralysis, occurs to both men and women of various ages and seems to happen to a large percentage of the population at least once in a lifetime. It can occur while the victim is sleeping during the day or night, and it is a worldwide phenomenon that has been documented since ancient times.

These things cause people much anxiety and fear, but there is no physical harm. Patients should know that this disorder is benign and does not put their life at risk.

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis:

The sleep paralysis symptoms include sensations of smells, levitation, paralysis, noises (eg. footsteps), terror, and images of frightening intruders, including those perceived to be evil entities or ghosts. Once considered very rare, about half of all people are now believed to experience sleep paralysis sometime during their life.

  • Presence of brief episodes of partial or complete skeletal muscle paralysis
  • Happens before falling asleep or just after waking up
  • Episodes can be associated with hypnogogic hallucinations or dream-like use of the brain.
  • A complaint of inability to move the body (except for eye blinking and breathing) at sleep onset or upon awakening
  • Inability to move or speak for 30 seconds – 3 minutes
  • Screams out for help but is not heard by anyone (the sleep paralyzed person believes they are really screaming out loud but to anyone near them they are only making odd little noises)
  • Can be hereditary
  • Can be brought on by stress

Sleep paralysis diagnosis

The sleep paralysis diagnosis can be done with a polysomnography or sleep recording test which will show at least one of the following:

  • A sleep onset REM period
  • Dissociated REM sleep
  • Suppression of skeletal muscle tone

Cure for sleep paralysis

The main cure for sleep paralysis is to reduce stress and to get enough sleep as sleep deprivation may cause sleep paralysis. Irregular sleeping schedules or frequent napping may increase the occurrence of sleep paralysis, so as is the case for most sleep disorders, a regular sleeping schedule is important.

Medications can also be administered as a cure for sleep paralysis in severe cases, and sometimes simple routines can minimize the effects of Sleep Paralysis.

To minimize the number of episodes, patients are advised to do the following:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Reduce stress
  • Exercise regularly, but not before bedtime
  • Sleep at a regular schedule
  • Don’t drink/eat caffeine type products before bedtime
  • Take a hot bath before bed, it will relax you.

People who take medicines and drugs for anti-anxiety such as “Xantax” or “Valium” will have a greater chance of suffering from Sleep Paralysis. For others, the problem is often tied to sleep deprivation, a consequence of being overtired.

All people with sleep paralysis need medical attention and treatment. Patients with sleep paralysis need to be assured that they do not have a mental illness or serious medical illness.

It’s a very terrifying experience and leaves the sufferer feeling helpless about how to stop it from occurring again. The best treatment is knowledge. By knowing what causes this disorder, we can reduce our fear.

Information adapted by Jenwytch from http://www.sleepdisordersguide.com/sleep-paralysis.html
and paranormal.about.com/od/humanenigmas/a/Old-Hag-Syndrome.htm
Image: “Nightmare” by Steven Stahlberg, from http://www.fantasygallery.net/stahlberg/art_3_nightmare.html
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7 thoughts on “Sleep Paralysis

  1. Hi!
    I haven’t been commenting lately, but I think all your changes are great and I really like this post.

    I have had several experiences in my life with sleep paralysis, I believe. I thought they were unexplained bad dreams or demonic attacks because I had no other explanations for them. I had what I would categorize as a CSP, several months ago, and looked up “bad dreams” discovering information about sleep paralysis. But didn’t spend much time on it. Your post is much better at articulating the information.

    I had many as a child, I had a lot of sleep issues as a child and stress so this would explain a lot. As an adult I only remember one absolutely terrifying night where I could not move, I felt like I had beings going through me and attacking, while a main evil force was trying to get into my room. I could feel everything and my body felt like I had gone through a battle. I scared my ex-husband so badly, I do not remember if I was screaming or not, I went blank until he turned on the lights. I was pretty shaken.

    I have not had any experiences “this” frightening since. It is very comforting to understand them better. Helps to eliminate the fear factor after the fact. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Angel, glad you like the changes to my blog and this post in particular. I haven’t been commenting much on yours or other blogs either as sometimes I just find it too hard to figure out what to say. As you know, I have issues with that and what someone else might take a couple of minutes to write can take me ages. Anyway, I’m glad you found my Sleep Paralysis info helpful. I think I’ve only had a couple of very mild instances of it throughout my life, and fortunately nothing so scary as you have experienced.

      I occasionally do paranormal investigations with some friends and a few months ago the case we attended was most certainly, in my opinion, mostly based on sleep paralysis, but the lady going through it was convinced it was supernatural even though we tried to explain. I put this article together afterwards in the hope that I could give a copy of it to her but she refused any follow up contact from our group (SOuL Searchers). It makes me wonder just how many supposedly paranormal visitations are really just sleep paralysis …so many people living in fear when they don’t need to be. 😦

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      1. I completely understand about the commenting. 🙂 I go through cycles of being ok, then not, so I comment when I feel like I can quickly and not spend hours on it. Some days that is impossible.

        That is unfortunate about the lady, she could probably have a lot more peace in understanding sleep paralysis than what she is holding on to currently. Though, I do think there are paranormal activities going on, I agree with using balance to discern. I really like the approach that Soul Searchers use to investigate. Very interesting indeed. 🙂

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  2. I have suffered from Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors for most of my adult life. For the longest time it was an incident or two a week. But as worry about my son’s chronic health issues grew I started having five or six episodes a night. Medication only gave me the ability to fall asleep after an episode, but it did not stop them. But guess what did? Hypnotherapy. I went to one session and the therapist recorded the session so I could also listen at home. After one week of listening I was free of these problems. I was stunned. I haven’t had to listen since. This is remarkable because I was a pretty severe case.

    This is a great post with some excellent points. During Sleep Paralysis it does feel like something is attacking you. But, a minute or two later I’d figure out what was happening, that it was just this weird sleep problem. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I am going to write about my experience with Hypnotherapy, in case it might be helpful to others.

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    1. That’s great that the hypnotherapy worked. I’d like to put a link here to your hypnotherapy article once you’ve written it, if that’s ok. 🙂

      As I said in my comments above to Angel, the only experiences I’ve had that were possibly sleep paralysis were very mild compared to anything you’ve experienced. One was when I was a teenager and still living with my parents – I woke up one morning convinced that I had briefly felt the weight of a person sitting on the side of my bed, beside my knees, and I heard a man’s gentle laughter fading off into the distance as I looked down the length of the bed to see who was there. There was of course no-one there and although it was very strange I didn’t feel frightened by it, just puzzled and wondering if it was paranormal.

      The second time was only a couple of years ago. Everyone had gone to school, uni or work and I’d made sure the doors were locked before I went back to bed to catch up on a couple of hours of much needed sleep. I remember waking up to hear my bedroom door opening, which freaked me out a bit as I knew the house should have been empty. I looked at the door and saw that it was still closed, even though I was convinced I’d heard it open. I closed my eyes to try to sleep again but then felt somebody on the bed behind me, but I wasn’t scared because I somehow ‘knew’ it was a Goddess that I (and my Pagan group) had been working with through ritual during the week. I was convinced I was awake and feeling all this. Next I felt her ‘presence’ enter my body from behind and push me to the front of my body – kinda like my body was an empty shell and she’d crawled in with me and shoved me up against the front wall of it. I felt kinda squished and restricted and couldn’t move at all but I could feel her right behind me – a very odd sensation. Anyway when it all ended and I was definitely awake and pondering over what had happened, I told a friend who I knew had “channelled” a Goddess during a meditation. My friend said the sensation of being pushed back inside her own body was the same as what had happened to me, only in her case the Goddess came in from the front and pushed her to the back. During her experience she said the Goddess said things using her voice that she had no control over and couldn’t remember afterwards. The other people there with her were quite surprised by what they were seeing and hearing. In my case I was aware of certain physical sensations and movements but had no control over them either.

      Now, did I or my friend really channel any sort of deity or “entity” or was it just sleep paralysis? I’m wondering if when people purposely try to channel something that when they go into a meditation induced trance they somehow enter the same or similar sleep/wake state where sleep paralysis occurs. Or maybe some of these experiences really are supernatural or paranormal? It’s certainly easy to see why anyone without knowledge of the medical or physiological causes would err on the side of the supernatural …and even though I do have that knowledge I’m still not certain whether my experiences were one way or the other, although I know which explanation I want to be true. 😉

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  3. I experience this all of the time. I sleep on my stomach and usually my eyes are open and it either feels like my daughter is climbing on the foot of my bed and lying down either beside me or on my back, or I feel something touch my leg. I also can come out of sleep, yet my eyes are still closed as I hear someone lightly walking around my room, from the foot of my bed to right beside me, and then walk out of the room. Last night I though my daughter came in my room since my tv was still on, and I heard footsteps, similar to how she walks. I kept my eyes closed thinking it was her and she would just go back and lie down. But I only kept them closed until I heard the footsteps leaving my room, and I got up to check on her and she was sound asleep. I woke her up to see if she came in my room and she said she didn’t. Terrified I checked all of the closets, bathrooms, and made sure the doors and windows were locked. It felt like an intruder was present but wasn’t speaking. Eerie!

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