Your eyes open. You find yourself lying flat on your back in the dark. Not a big deal, just roll over and go back to sleep. But then you realize, you can’t move. It’s like a lead blanket has been laid over your entire body. You try with every ounce of energy you can muster to just lift one finger but it’s no use. You’re paralyzed. You think to yourself, “It’s just a dream.” so you close your eyes and try to will yourself to wake up.
Then you feel it. The presence. It’s like someone is watching you and something bad is about to happen. You tell yourself to wake up. You try to move, you try to scream, anything to wake up. Then you realize you are awake. And then you see it. The shadow that stands at the foot of your bed. Again you try to scream but all that comes out is a faint moan. This time, the shadow just stares and you can’t decide if the specter is somehow keeping you frozen or if its the intense fear that has overtaken you.
Sleep paralysis is a parasomnia that is actually quite common. Some studies have shown that 40% of people between the ages of 16- 30 have had one or more episode of sleep paralysis. However, this percentage may be greater due to the number of episodes that are not reported. Sleep paralysis can also occur in younger and older demographics.
People who have had these episodes all describe similar experiences. An episode of sleep paralysis may include some or all of the following:
- Inability to move
- Trouble breathing
- Feeling or seeing a presence
- Overwhelming fear
- Visual, auditory, or olfactory hallucinations.
To sum up, Sleep paralysis feels like a living nightmare. But what causes it?
Rem Sleep Atonia
Throughout history, many people have theorized what causes sleep paralysis. Early theories involved demons and witchcraft. The incubus and the succubus, aliens, and phantoms have all been blamed for this parasomnia. And it’s easy to see why people would have made these assumptions. Modern science, however, has found some other explanations.
One explanation is that a sleep paralysis episode happens when we experience an interruption in an rem stage of sleep. During REM sleep, our bodies experience what is called REM sleep atonia. Sleep atonia changes the action potential of motor neurons to keep us from acting out our dreams. This is almost the opposite if what happens with sleepwalkers.
So what about the hallucinations we see? The most common visions are demons, shadows, and an old hag. Why is it that so many people have similar sightings? The answer could be that during sleep paralysis, remnants of our dreams become mixed with reality. Since we are already frightened by not being able to move, our brains make it worse by trying to find a reason. The reason that we often settle for is a malicious presence. And depending on culture, age, and life experiences your brain will conjure an image.
Like most parasomnias, sleep paralysis can be a very frightening thing but it is not dangerous. Sometimes it can be brought about by:
- Other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea
- Substance abuse
- Sleep deprivation
- Underlying health factors
- Sleeping on your back
If your sleep paralysis is causing you anxiety or making you stay awake after an episode consult your doctor about treatment options. There is no direct treatment for sleep paralysis but you may find a way to address underlying issues that may be causing it.
Some people find that you can turn an episode of sleep paralysis into a state of lucid dreaming but you first have to tame your fear and realize that you are in control.