What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is not necessarily a sleep disorder. Sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak upon falling asleep or waking up. The condition is not harmful and usually passes within a few seconds to a few minutes. However, when it happens it can be unnerving and can cause alarm or panic.
In the past sleep paralysis was associated with demons or other supernatural beliefs. This was due to the fact that many people experience hallucinations during the episode. There can be physical sensations such as a feeling of tightness in the chest or breathing difficulty. Some may also have the feelings of a presence in the room or just outside presenting a danger. Others report seeing demons or ghostly figures on top of them or close to them. During these episodes, the individual is fully aware of their surroundings but the inability to move or speak can be quite frightening.
There are two types of sleep paralysis. It is termed hypnagogic if it occurs when a person is falling asleep and the body is going into a REM sleep state. If sleep paralysis occurs upon waking before the person is out of REM sleep it is termed hypnopompic.
What causes sleep paralysis?
The American Sleep Association reports that sleep paralysis can be caused by a disruption in REM sleep. REM sleep is the deep dream state of sleep. In addition to dreaming the body enters a state known as atonia, where the muscles are placed in a state of paralysis to prevent the dreamer from acting out their dreams. This is a natural part of REM sleep. However, if the REM cycle is disrupted a person may still be in the state of atonia and unable to move, even though they are awake. If the person is only partially awakened, the dream state can mix with the awake state and the person can experience hallucinations such as described earlier.
Sleep paralysis has been linked to other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and narcolepsy. It has also been associated with being sleep deprived and excessive daytime sleepiness. Other medical conditions linked to episodes include anxiety disorders and migraine headaches.
Sleep paralysis legends
Many legends exist throughout history and in many cultures to explain the sensations a person experiences during sleep paralysis. An interesting article in Live Science studies the many different cultural legends surrounding the symptoms of sleep paralysis. Some people believe this is where the legends of the Incubus and Succubus originated.
My own story of an incident of sleep paralysis many years ago led to my looking into the phenomenon. I can remember awakening to a feeling of choking and a great weight upon my chest. I could see a dark female form straddling me. I was unable to move or cry out. The female form was apparently having sex with me and holding me down on my chest with one hand and choking me with the other. I was unable to move at all and a feeling of panic came over me at the feeling of choking. Shortly thereafter I came fully awake and was able to move and breath normally. I soon went back to sleep but the memory was with me when I awoke. Being the curious person that I am I wanted to understand what I had experienced. This led me to do research for myself on what was known and to see that sleep paralysis with hallucinations is fairly common.
Is sleep paralysis dangerous?
The short answer is no. Although the sensations experienced are unpleasant, there is no danger associated with the sleep paralysis itself. However, if the condition is caused by an underlying medical condition then you should seek professional medical advice and treatment for the underlying condition. Obstructive sleep apnea and narcolepsy should be diagnosed and treated by a sleep specialist. Anxiety disorders causing symptoms should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional as well. Treatment may diminish or eliminate the episodes you are experiencing.
The best way to deal with an episode of sleep paralysis is to remain calm and not panic. The associated feelings will pass in a few seconds to a few minutes. Sleep paralysis can be frightening but it does not pose a threat to your health unless you have an underlying condition that is causing it.