You’re suddenly awake from your slumber. You can’t move a muscle, yet you see a shadow from the corner of your eye. Fear starts to climb from inside you. Are those voices you hear? Is it a ghost? Perhaps aliens? Demons? Is it just a hallucination to conjure your own denomic images? You might feel like you’re in great danger, even fear that you’re going to die. Some of you might even think that you’re going to die. As you succumb to your fears or continue to fight, you can suddenly move again! As you look around, you realize the shadows aren’t there. You think to yourself, “Thank goodness I am okay.” This phenomenon is what is commonly referred to as sleep paralysis (SP), or as science calls it, Awareness During Sleeping Paralysis (ASP).
Do these symptoms sound familiar to you? Chances are you’ve either experienced sleeping paralysis yourself, or heard stories from other people. This ‘waking nightmare’ story is nothing new. In fact, studies suggest that it can be traced back to the earliest history of humanity. Sleep paralysis has been the inspiration for many different types of art and painting throughout history. In more recent times, you can find this art in the form of a meme, gif, song lyrics and documentary videos and movies. Almost all cultures have traditional stories or legends to try to explain the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Often, these stories have a main theme of spirituality. For example, the Spanish culture has a tale of “Pesanta”, a name of a demonic black animal, often a cat or a dog, that sits on people’s chests while they are asleep, causing nightmares.
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Of course, back during the early history of mankind, superstitions were a stronger part of everyday life and beliefs. People directly associate these scary sleep paralysis experiences with ghosts, demonic possession activities, and other old hag tales, even death. As science advances, people have also started relating this phenomenon to alien abduction, while others still stick with demon and incubus possessions, spiritual beliefs, and other myths. However, turns out there is a scientific approach to explain this phenomenon. This article will attempt to be an in-depth discussion about sleeping paralysis. How does it actually happen? Why do hallucinations occur with it? Should you be worried if it’s recurrent? What’s the actual cause and how can sleep paralysis be avoided?
We will provide the true facts and bust the myths to get you real answers to this perplexing disorder. First things first, what causes sleep paralysis?
Cause of sleep paralysis
Studies suggest that up to 40 percent of the world’s population experience a sleep paralysis attack at least once in their lives. Most people say that experiencing sleep paralysis was creepy and unsettling, but nothing overly scary or serious. However, 6% of the total population reports frequent recurrence. These episodes tend to be more intense, often full of severe hallucinations which can be very unsettling.
Sleep researchers conclude that sleeping paralysis occurs because you simply don’t make a smooth transition between a deep sleep and wakefulness. Sometimes stress can be a cause of the lack of a smooth transition, or other factors in your life. At times, severe psychology issues can cause this as well, but this is not as common.
Symptoms of sleep paralysis included being unable to move or speak. Some people experience a choking sensation or feeling pressure throughout their body. So based on this little bit of information we know so far, how does sleeping paralysis really work? To answer that question, we must first understand the two different occurrences of sleeping paralysis.
When does sleep paralysis occur?
There are two different common occurrences for sleeping paralysis. If it occurs while you are just about to fall asleep, it’s called Hypnagogic Sleeping Paralysis. If it happens while you’re waking up, it’s called Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis.
The definition of Hypnagogic is a state of the body immediately before you enter deep sleep. On the other hand, Hypnopompic happens after you have experienced a deep sleep, and becomes a state as the body is trying to wake up from that deep sleep. These two different types of sleep paralysis have similar symptoms despite their different causes.
Let’s dive a little deeper on these similarities and differences.
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Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis
When you fall asleep, your body slowly enters into a relaxed state. When this stage occurs smoothly, we become less aware so we do not notice the actual change. For example, as you fall asleep each night you probably aren’t consciously aware that you’re falling asleep, right? You don’t think to yourself, “I’m about to go to sleep… Here it goes…”
When this transition doesn’t happen easily, sleeping paralysis can occur. When you retain awareness while falling asleep, the process is interrupted and as a result, you wake up and lose your ability to move or speak.
Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis
Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis is slightly more complicated than the type we just discussed. During sleep, we alternate between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (Non- Rapid Eye Movement ) sleep states. Each REM-NREM cycle will last for roughly 90 minutes. During NREM, which occurs for about 75% of the cycle time, your body relaxes. After that, you will shift into the REM state, where your eyes move quickly. This is where dreams, as well as nightmares, can occur.
What causes the difficult transition during sleep?
As mentioned, up to 40% of the total population have experienced sleeping paralysis. Over the years, studies and research have concluded a few main causes:
- Lack of sleep or severe tiredness.
- Sudden change of sleep schedule.
- Sleeping on the back can disturb the REM-NREM cycle, causing failure to achieve a smooth transition.
- Using certain medications can induce sleep paralysis. These can include treatments for ADHD and bipolar disorder.
- Narcolepsy, nighttime leg cramp syndrome, and insomnia.
- Mental conditions such as severe stress and bipolar disorder.
- A study in 2013 suggested that rare neurodegenerative diseases can cause sleeping paralysis.
- Chemical and substance abuse can increase the chance of sleeping paralysis. It’s important to seek treatment if this is occurring.
- Some people are experimenting with self-inducing sleeping paralysis, mainly to reach a lucid dreaming state.
Understanding the hallucinations
The cause of hallucinations that often accompany sleeping paralysis is not absolutely clear and can vary widely for different people. However, research suggests that there are several things that can cause induced hallucinations:
- Feeling scared: This may sound silly, but if you’ve had a scary experience lately, or even watched a particularly frightening movie or video, this can cause the hallucinations. If your mind is not calm when you’re sleeping, it’ll make your long night of sleep out of control and disruptive. This can cause visions.
- When this happens as you get out of a dreaming state, the dream can mix with reality. You still retain your auditory senses and to some extent visual senses, which can confuse your state of mind about whether you are sleeping or awake.
Here are the common hallucinations associated with sleeping paralysis:
- Seeing shifting colors or shapes, and sometimes swirling images. This often happens during hypnagogic sleep paralysis
- Isolated vibrations in one part of the body, sometimes can travel from one body part to another. Ranging from very mild to very bad.
- Seeing shapes and sometimes fully-formed pictures, shadow of entities
- Hearing sounds, can vary from talking and whispering to banging, crashing, and many more
- On the other end of the spectrum, some might experience a sense of awakening or euphoria
- Feeling pressure on the chest, resembling someone lying on top of you. Creating a sense of choking
- Having an increased heartbeat from mild to very fast
- Sometimes can be very real sensations like a lucid feeling of someone lying next to you, flying over you, standing within your field of vision, or physical sensations like being dropped from the bed and caught by something
- Can cause severe pain on one’s self, although the chances are pretty rare
Again they all might seem scary, but there are no serious implications both physical and mental.
For more in-depth information, read our post about sleep paralysis symptoms.
How to Treat Sleeping Paralysis
While there is no direct cure for sleeping paralysis, it doesn’t mean you can’t work to prevent it from happening. Because there are underlying problems that often result in sleep paralysis, you can work to treat those to stop the systoms or rid yourself entirely of them.
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- Avoid exposing yourself to blue light from TV or smartphone screens before you sleep. This will dramatically improve your sleep quality. You might want to buy a very affordable pair of digital glasses that can filter the blue light.
- Curing any health problems that might contribute to sleeping paralysis. If you suspect yourself of any mental health issues, come to a psychiatric office and get help.
- Fix your sleeping habit and give yourself enough sleep. If you have any trouble sleeping, check out these natural sleep remedies to aid you.
- Lastly, one of the best cures for any conditions is to be happier. Laugh more and give yourself a break. You will live and sleep better without stress. Find some ways to reduce anxiety and stress including yoga, meditation, and many more.
Although it might be (very) scary, sleeping paralysis not dangerous. There is no direct evidence that sleeping paralysis can be harmful, much less kill yo u. It can, however, disturb you from getting a good night sleep, which can put you in harm indirectly. Meaning, it might affect how you perform the next day and how one feels throughout the day. One of the simplest ways to address sleeping paralysis is to keep a healthy sleep habit. This means to get yourself a nice six to eight hours sleep every day. You might also want to improve your sleep quality instead of just quantity.
Stay tuned for more articles regarding sleep quality tips, sleep problems, and more.