Imagine this scenario:
It’s the middle of the night and you are sleeping. Suddenly you wake up and you can’t move a muscle – arms, legs, everything seems completely paralyzed. You can’t open your eyes and you can’t say a word or yell for help.
What is even worse, you breathe with difficulty and you are 100% sure that there is someone or something in your room. Something dark and malevolent that keeps you paralyzed and is feeding on your fears.
This horror lasts for minutes, but it seems like hours to you and when you finally break free, you don’t want to go back to sleep. If this has happened to you, I know that it haunts you to this day as it haunts me too.
This may seem to some like a fictional horror story or a scene from a horror movie. But in fact, it’s а very real issue for a number of people. That’s right – tonight people will wake up to the horrific scenario described above and will have no idea what is happening to them.
This phenomenon doesn’t occur in dreams – people are actually awake, but unable to move, with a realistic perception of the environment.
These three symptoms are the most common in what is known as sleep paralysis.
Other symptoms include and overwhelming fear and dread, sensed presence, pressure on the chest, difficulty in breathing and other unusual sensations.
As supernatural as it may sound, it actually has already been explained by scientists as a state of wakefulness where the body is asleep, while the person is consciously awake.
It happens during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when the person experiences the most vivid dreams. This cycle takes 1,5-2 hours and repeats several times during the night. It is in this phase that the brain sends out certain neurotransmitters to the body which paralyze it, so that the sleeper cannot act out the activity of their dream.
In normal sleep, the paralysis ends before the person awakens, but in the case of sleep paralysis, the process falls out of step, thus rendering the person conscious but paralyzed. This state of paralysis may last from a few seconds to a minute (which may seem like hours).
If the person starts experiencing hallucinations, it may be due to the waking consciousness getting mixed with the dream consciousness, where the person starts experiencing frightening and convincing hallucinations.
Besides the hypothesis of mixed-up consciousnesses, other guesses are that the hallucinations may appear as the brain’s response to the unnatural paralysis that the person is experiencing.
One guess is that the consciousness is trying to recreate the image of moving to induce movement. On the other hand, another theory tries to toss the blame to the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for fear.
In this state of paralysis, it is rather natural for a person to be afraid, as the amygdala starts sending out signals of imminent threat. The brain thus tries to correct the paradox of the amygdala’s activity by inventing images that would justify the fear.
It has been found that the most vulnerable groups to experience sleep paralysis are those who experience disruptions in their sleep, people who have experienced traumatic life events, and people who suffer from anxiety and depression.
There are three types of sleep paralysis:
Researchers have concluded that the symptoms of sleep paralysis fall into three distinct groups. Each group is a combination of certain physical and perception symptoms.
People who experience the Incubus sleep paralysis report feeling a pressure on the chest, breathing difficultly and have experienced even pain.
However, these symptoms can be explained with the fact that the body is still in REM mode and in this mode the breathing is shallow, which is not something we are used to in a conscious state. Thus, the pressure on the chest and the difficulty with breathing come as a result.
People who experience the Intruder sleep paralysis report that they sense a presence of something or someone, they experience visual and auditory hallucinations and they sense fear.
As mentioned above, this kind of perception owes the dread to the over-active sense of fear from the amygdala that the brain tries to justify with appropriate hallucinations. In other words, your brain plays tricks on you after leaving you paralyzed.
UNUSUAL BODILY EXPERIENCES
Although the rarest of them all, unusual bodily experiences that seem like out-of-body experiences can happen too. People may seem to think that they are floating above their body or that they move out of the body while still being able to perceive the body nailed to the bed.
This could happen as a result of the mental images mentioned above and has little to do with astral projection.
How to prevent sleep paralysis
While there are no certain prescribed methods of preventing sleep paralysis, it scientists recommend adopting a regular sleeping pattern with strict times of going to bed and waking up. They also recommend avoiding caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime.
However, if the circumstances don’t allow you to set a regular sleeping pattern (such as work commitments), there are some ways of coping in case an attack occurs.
- Dissociate yourself from it
Rather than allowing yourself to be immersed in the attack, adopt a third person stance, by observing your body and the whole situation as objectively as possible
- Avoid sleeping on your back
It has been concluded that most sleep paralysis attacks occur when sleeping on your back. Avoiding this reduces the chance of an attack.
- Stay calm
If it has already happened to you, you should be most probably more aware of what it is and that it will eventually end. Remembering and understanding what is happening and trying to relax and breath normally (as much as possible) can reduce the length and intensity of the attack.
- Concentrate intensely on moving any muscle
Trying to move even a small muscle, such as a finger, can lead to a tiny movement that can break the paralysis and end the waking nightmare.
I remember when I experienced my first sleep paralysis (and luckily my last one). It was years ago and it still haunts me to this day. I can actually still describe every second of it. If you have experienced a sleep paralysis or know someone who did, don’t forget to share your thoughts on it!
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A professional writer with over a decade of incessant writing skills. Her topics of interest and expertise range from psychology, to all sorts of disciplines such as science and news.