Sleep Paralysis: The Science of This Scary Event


Angels. Aliens. Demons. Over the years, scientists and sleepers alike have tried to explain the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. It has been the subject of paintings and songs, television shows and conspiracy theories. Though estimates as to how many people suffer from it differ, many people claim to have experienced the terror associated with the disorder. You know the folktale explanations. Why do people suffer from sleep paralysis, though?

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What is Sleep Paralysis?

What exactly is sleep paralysis? Anyone who has experienced it can tell you that it is the feeling of complete and utter helplessness in the face of nightmarish figures or inexplicable dread. It is a crushing weight holding you down while you must suffer through whatever horrors await. It is like waking up dead.

From a more scientific, yet no less terrifying, perspective, sleep paralysis is the phenomenon in which you wake up from a deep sleep and cannot move. Episodes last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. People suffer from temporary paralysis. Some have the sensation of choking or feelings of extreme pressure accompany an instance.

Sleep paralysis can occur at two points during sleep: either when falling asleep or when waking up. As you fall asleep, your muscles slowly relax. If you become aware in the process, you may find that you cannot move or speak. If you become aware during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of your sleep, you experience a similar result. Either way, the body is technically still asleep but the mind is all too awake.

Who suffers from sleep paralysis? Studies have shown that younger people are more likely to experience the phenomenon. Those aged 10 to 25 admitted to having an episode more often than older adults did. People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also more likely to suffer.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Scientists have yet to determine an exact cause of sleep paralysis. Though, correlations with other disorders exist. Most often, episodes are linked to sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. People who suffer from insomnia are also more prone to these episodes. Experts say that regular, restful sleep helps stave off terrifying bouts of sleep paralysis and promotes a healthy lifestyle.

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Other conditions influence the likelihood of suffering from an episode. Mental conditions such as bipolar disorder or extreme stress can affect the brain during sleep. A major contributing factor is the presence of substances, including prescription medications. Illicit substances change your brain chemistry. Medications such as those to treat ADD and ADHD can increase the chances of inducing a sleep paralysis episode.

Things to Remember

If you suffer from sleep paralysis, a few points are key. Always remain calm. The experience can terrify you if you have never been through it before. After you’ve dealt with it a few times, you can practice telling yourself that it is only temporary.

Your doctor needs to know if the sensation of paralysis gets in the way of your normal, healthy sleep. The less sleep you get, the more likely you are to suffer from sleep paralysis. Don’t let it become a chronic issue. If you think there is a problem, seek help.

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