Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being unable to move, either upon awakening or at the onset of sleep. Episodes are commonly accompanied by hypnagogic experiences, that are auditory, visual, and sensory hallucinations.
According to Michael Breus, Ph.D. – “Most patients say the same thing to describe sleep paralysis: that it feels like you woke up dead. You know that your mind is awake and your body is not — so you are trapped, basically.”
The events can last anywhere from five seconds to several minutes, with rare cases lasting for a few hours, where the affected individual could well experience panic symptoms.
Worldwide, about 8% of the population has experienced sleep paralysis. Interestingly, the number jumps to 32% for psychiatric patients. It commonly starts during adolescence, and it can become frequent during the 30s.
People with the condition may:
- have episodes which last from only seconds to a few minutes;
- sense or see an evil presence in the room;
- be unable to move their legs and arms, head, and body, when waking up or falling asleep;
- experience a feeling of fear or dread;
- be unable to move the eyes;
- have difficulty breathing, as if someone or something is crushing the chest.
Note – you will be able to speak and move normally afterward, however, you may feel anxious and unsettled about going to sleep again.
According to research, sleep paralysis may occur when the transitions in and out of REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement sleep) don’t go smoothly.
One REM-NREM cycle lasts about 90 minutes, and NREM sleep occurs first and takes up to 75 percent of the overall sleep time.
During non-rapid eye movement sleep, the body relaxes. During rapid eye movement sleep, the eyes move quickly, but the body is relaxed.
Sleep paralysis may be associated with:
- sleeping on your back;
- having a mental health disorder, like anxiety, schizophrenia (a mental illness which interferes with an individual’s ability to think clearly), bipolar disorder, or depression (these patients have a 100 percent increased risk of having sleep hallucinations on at least a weekly basis);
- a family history of sleep paralysis;
- use of hallucinogenic drugs;
- narcolepsy – it is an overpowering need to sleep which is caused by a problem with the brain’s ability to regulate sleep;
- insufficient sleep;
- irregular sleeping patterns – it is a near absence of the circadian rhythm due to shift work or jet lag;
- not getting enough sleep (insomnia or sleep deprivation);
- increased levels of stress.
When to Call the Doctor
See your doctor if you have any of these concerns:
- your symptoms keep you up during the night;
- when your bed partner says you don’t breathe normally during sleep;
- your symptoms leave you very tired during the day;
- if you remain weak or disoriented after an episode;
- if you feel anxious about your symptoms;
- if the episodes are prolonged (more than a few minutes);
- if the episodes of paralysis are not associated with waking or sleep onset.
For most people, there is no treatment for this condition. The most important thing is prevention and the treatment of any underlying health issues.
You can help decrease your chances of experiencing the condition by focusing on the fundamentals of healthy sleep, which include:
- don’t eat any food just before going to bed, especially fatty food;
- don’t drink any alcoholic beverages before going to bed;
- stop smoking cigarettes and avoid second-hand smoking;
- cut down on caffeine (a central nervous system stimulant found in coffee, chocolate, energy drinks, and some types of tea);
- avoid the use of TV, computer, or smartphones two hours before going to bed;
- have regular physical exercise during the day;
- make sure your bed is comfortable;
- turn off Wi-Fi during the night;
- make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet;
- go to bed and get up at about the same time each day;
- try to sleep between six and eight hours each night.
Note – try to sleep on your left side or on your belly as sleeping on your back increases the risk of experiencing sleep paralysis.
Spiritual Meaning & Emotional Causes of Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis is linked to the desire to get away from something, to avoid something: are you trying to avoid or oppose a situation, person or responsibility?
Your life seems so unbearable that you want to “escape”, become insensitive, because you live under the impression that there is no solution to your problems, and you are not able to take on your responsibilities.
You may have experienced a trauma that demands you to “stop” living because it is too much. Your thinking may also be very rigid and if things do not happen the way you want, you tend to back off, escape.
According to the Scandinavian folklore, sleep paralysis represents a contact with demons. In Newfoundland, the phenomenon describes an old woman who leaves her body at night and tries to suffocate her victims.
In Malay (an Austronesian ethnic group), the phenomenon is known as “kena tindih” (being held down).
In Africa, the phenomenon is called “Ogun Oru,” meaning “night war.” It is considered a cause of spells or spirits who return to the material world to punish certain people. The African people have an interesting way of escaping these manifestations: Christian prayers.
In East Asia, the condition is known as “ghost oppression,” building upon a Chinese belief that an individual’s soul is vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits during sleep.
Moreover, in some parts of the world, sleep paralysis is called the “old hag.” Also, in Mexico, the condition is referred to as “dead person on you.”
Sleep paralysis is somewhere between pathology and fantastic, between the shadows of the spiritual world and the boundary of the material world.
Probably more studies will build opinions on the phenomenon and perhaps even delimitate it from other phenomena similar to it.