Sleep paralysis is a medical condition where a person, on waking up from sleep, experiences temporary inability to move or speak.
It is also commonly accompanied by a feeling that someone or something is in the room with you or sometimes you actually see or hear things (basically, hallucinating) as well as the physical sensation of experiencing pressure on your chest.
Sleep paralysis shouldn’t be confused with night terrors
People who wake up to night terrors normally bolt up and sit upright in panic, often unaware of their surroundings and not knowing where they are.
When you sleep, your brain gives a command to your body’s voluntary muscles to relax and go into a state of paralysis, which is called atonia. This restricts your physical movements in your dreams, thereby, helping protect the body from any external injury.
In any sleep behavior disorder or during nightmares, atonia does not occur properly and the voluntary muscles move while the mind remains asleep, which is why people can do crazy things in their sleep, like sleep walk , and be totally unaware of it.
In sleep paralysis, however, the opposite happens.
The body remains paralyzed while the brain awakens. You are alert and conscious, but are unable to move voluntary muscles. This is often accompanied by a sensation of chest pressure; this is the reason why many people also wake up from sleep paralysis gasping for breath.
It is also, more often than not, accompanied with a feeling of dread—as if you’re slowly dying
This is why when you finally wake up, you feel as if you woke up from the dead. Here’s what a Redditor said when she shared her sleep paralysis story on Reddit:
I woke up and couldn’t move. I had never heard of sleep paralysis, so it was pretty scary. It wasn’t quite as terrifying as I’ve seen some descriptions of, but I guess results vary. It went through my head that I might be dying and I just kind of told myself ‘oh well, fuck it, doesn’t look like I can do anything about it’ so I went back to sleep. Not sure if it means I have no will to live, or if I’m some sort of zen badass. It was an interesting experience to say the least, wouldn’t recommend.
Sleep paralysis can often occur in one of the two transitions
When you’re falling asleep or waking up (the reasons for which are still pretty much unknown). The body MUST go into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and must come out of it.
Sleep paralysis happens when your body has trouble making this transition. If it happens when you’re falling asleep—it’s called ‘hypnagogic’ sleep paralysis. Whereas if it happens while waking up, it’s called as ‘hypnopompic’ sleep paralysis.
No matter how much you try, even if you consciously know that you’re undergoing a sleep paralysis, you can’t wake your body up
A very miniscule amount of people can slightly move their fingers, wiggle their toes or facial muscles, which eventually helps them wake up the rest of their body.
Majority of people just have to wait this out. The episode can last from somewhere between 20 seconds to a few minutes.
It also often includes hallucinations and reported nightmares
Because unlike the visuals in your dreams which occur when you’re deep in sleep and your eyes are closed, these hallucinations occur when your mind is alert and eyes are open.
This makes it double scary because we have been conditioned to believe that seeing is believing. The added anxiety of not being able to move your body or scream for help also makes people super afraid of their surroundings.
It’s a completely natural occurrence, and is definitely not a disease
Sleep paralysis can happen to anyone under the sun. In fact, several studies have shown that most people have at least one episode in their life, and they aren’t even aware of it.
The experience is always highly individualistic and differs from person to person. That being said, young adults and people with a history of mental illness are more prone to it.
Sleep paralysis is something pretty much everyone experiences
Several researches have also consistently shown that people who are exhausted, stressed or simply sleep-deprived are more likely to experience sleep paralysis and other sleep disorders.
But really, people have been trying from a very long time to decipher why it happens once in a while or every alternate day, but there has been no explanation thus far.
Likewise, researchers have been trying to explain this phenomenon for a very, very long time
So much so that Persian medical texts dating back to the 10th century have accounts of sleep paralysis. The first medical observation, however, was made by a Dutch physician in 1664.
He believed that a 50-year-old woman was suffering from ‘Night-Mare’ until the 19th century, after which it was termed as ‘sleep palsy’, and ultimately ‘sleep paralysis.’
Painting by a Swiss painter Henry Fuseli
A very crucial historic example of sleep paralysis can, in fact, be explained with the help of this very famous, and very creepy, Renaissance painting by a Swiss painter Henry Fuseli.
The scary-looking gremlin, perhaps, demonstrates the feeling of pressure on the chest that one feels during sleep paralysis. This painting is believed to be one of Fuseli’s greatest work till date.
There have been many folk legends around the world that try to explain this condition in different cultures
In Japan, they know it as ‘kanashibar’ or as it translates—‘bound up with metal’. People know it as ‘ghost oppression’ in China, and in the US, some people relate it to alien abductions.
In African culture, sleep paralysis is interpreted as ‘devil riding your back’ where demons have sex with people in their sleep. They are known as ‘Incubus’ or ‘Succubus’!
Although there is no denying that sleep paralysis can be a horrifying experience, the truth is there is nothing to be worried about. It doesn’t cause any physical harm to the body, and there have been no clinical deaths known till date. However, if the episodes continue with a regular pattern, it’s always advisable to pay a visit to a sleep disorder specialist.