What is Sleep Paralysis?

Astonishing Legends has touched on the terrifying expereince of sleep paralysis in a number of our episodes. Today, I wanted to dig in a little more deeply into the phenomena of sleep paralysis in order to gain a better understanding of what causes it, what happens, and how to deal with it.

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Sleep paralysis seems quite astonishing in nature. In fact, many people report seeing shadow people, hags, demons, ghostly visitations, unexplainable creatures, and even alien abductions. Although these beings are linked to the paranormal, they also frequently appear during sleep paralysis episodes.

First and foremost, it is a sleeping disorder. Sleep paralysis consists, generally, of the feeling of being conscious but being completely unable to move, which can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Often times the vision of some kind of presence will be 'seen' by the victim, although what is seen changes on a case-by-case basis. Some who suffer from sleep paralysis also note physical pressure and even a sense of choking that accompanies a sleep paralysis episode. 

Oh, and sleep paralysis isn't new. In fact, it was recognized in the scientific world by a psychologist, Weir Mitchell, in 1876. In his own words he describes sleep paralysis as:  “The subject awakes to consciousness of his environment but is incapable of moving a muscle; lying to all appearance still asleep. He is really engaged in a struggle for movement fraught with acute mental distress; could he but manage to stir, the spell would vanish instantly.”

So, when does it happen? Well, sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up BEFORE REM is finished. Thus, giving the sense of not being able to move. Basically, your body's ability to move hasn't been "turned on" yet.

Another thing most people don't know is that there are different kinds of sleep paralysis. There is hypnagogic sleep paralysis, which is what it is called when sleep paralysis occurs as you are falling asleep. Hypnopompic sleep paralysis happens as you are waking up.

Now that we know a little more about what sleep paralysis is, let's dive into what can cause sleep paralysis. It does not appear that sleep paralysis has one "point of origin", as far as stressors go. In fact, several seemingly common things can bring on an episode of sleep paralysis. For example:

  • Medications
  • Other sleep disorders (like seep apnea or narcolepsy)
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stress
  • Jet Lag
  • Caffeine 
  • Alcohol
  • Falling asleep too fast (literally - its skipping your REM/bypassing parts of your REM cycle that can trigger an episode) 

The above list is not conclusive by any means. Not to mention, you can expereince reoccurring sleep paralysis or one-off episodes...potentially caused by different stressors.

So, how did the paranormal enter the realm of sleep? Well, in the narrative and mythology of sleep paralysis, it was believed that demons or otherwise evil beings caused sleep paralysis by literally holding people down to their beds, rendering them unable to move or even sitting on their chests - which could further explain why people feel short of breath or pressure.

Additionally, hallucinations are very common during sleep paralysis, causing people to see strange and surreal creatures because during sleep paralysis the brain is still in 'dream mode', and has the ability to conjure up these images. 

So, how can you guard against sleep paralysis? Sadly, there is no set treatment for combatting sleep paralysis. Often, the best way to fight against sleep paralysis is by treating underlying causes, like those from the list above.

If you have only had one or two attacks, taking care of your sleep hygiene could be a potential fix to the issue. However, if you have continuous, reoccurring attacks you might want to visit a sleep specialist (yes, that is totally a thing)!

If you do have an attack...there isn't much you can do to stop it in the moment. Just remind yourself that this is only temporary and soon you feel much better.

The image above is from Flickr user Matt Anderson and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.