Have you ever woken up from a nightmare and been unsure if it was real or not? Maybe it took you a few seconds to put yourself back in the real world. If you answered yes, then you most likely have experienced sleep paralysis regularly in your life.
Sleep paralysis is more common than you might think. Some form of sleep paralysis actually occurs in 1 in 4 individuals. Although, it might not be the full-fledged type of waking nightmare that happens to a much smaller percentage of those affected.
What Is It?
Sleep paralysis is a condition in which the sleeper awakens around the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. This stage of sleep is about the time when most of us experience dreams, and it is known to be the deepest period of sleep. Sleep paralysis happens when the body is either preparing to go into REM or preparing to come out of it. As such, sufferers of this condition are often “paralyzed” for seconds or even minutes after they come out of sleep. It often occurs in those who are unable to smoothly transition from one cycle of sleep to another.
As the body awakens, the eyes open, but the brain is still sending signals as if it was just attempting to enter or leave the dream state or REM cycle. This creates a confusing, and often terrifying, experience for the individual. Essentially, after you awaken your consciousness is there, but the brain is still receiving transmissions from REM sleep.
Hallucinations are very common in those who experience sleep paralysis. Interestingly enough, many individuals who suffer from sleep paralysis claim to see the same types of hallucinations. Patients who were studied often report seeing shapes on the walls including bugs and spiders. In addition, they frequently describe cases of a shadowy person looming over their bed, standing in their doorway, or even sitting directly on their chest.
What Is It Like?
Imagine waking in bed and slipping into consciousness without the ability to move or speak. Now imagine, that you see a spot on the wall, something that morphs into a very realistic spider crawling across your wall. You can see every detail in the color, shape, and movement of the spider. Another instance might consist of someone waking to the feeling of a presence in their room, over their bed, or how about right on top of their chest?
Our minds are incomprehensibly powerful. The shadow or spot is often thought to simply be a combination light bouncing off of our eyes after coming out of a hard sleep and the firing of neurons during a regular sleep cycle. What’s wonderfully amazing is the fact that when our eyes see a shadow or spot, our minds will fill in the rest of the details.
Have you ever had a dream where a house, city, or other scene just happened to appear out of nowhere? You could almost see your mind building the dream right before your eyes. That is the same thing that happens in sleep paralysis and why so many people feel that the figures they so lucidly saw, were real.
People have been experiencing sleep paralysis for hundreds if not thousands of years. Paintings of shadowy figures and demons in someone’s room date back to the renaissance and beyond. For many years people believed that these experiences truly were demonic visitors who had come with omens of bad tidings. Of course today we know this not to be true.
What Causes It?
Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough information available about sleep paralysis. However, doctors have come to the conclusion that the best way to avoid sleep paralysis is to get good sleep. It seems that this condition is much more likely to occur in those who are sleep exhausted or are unable to get a full night’s rest.
Sleep paralysis can be worsened and/or accompanied by conditions such as Restless Leg Syndrome or Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. Studies show that those with illnesses that affect the quality of their sleep are more likely to experience sleep paralysis.
Stress is also a factor in sleep paralysis. Those who are consistently stressed and are disrupted from their usual routine or their stress interrupts usual sleep patterns may experience sleep paralysis as well.
Surprisingly enough, alcohol and drugs may also be a factor. Not for their mind-altering effects, but again rather for their effect on their body’s ability to get a full 7-8 hours of sleep. Individuals who drank fairly often, took medications that affected their sleep, or participated in recreational drug use were more likely to have inconsistent sleep patterns. Thus, these folks experienced significantly more sleep paralysis than those who did not partook in these actions.
Can It Ever Be Cured?
In conclusion, the final answer is unclear. Sleep paralysis actually is thought to be a part of our unconscious defense mechanisms. Theories say it may be a genetic condition that purposefully occurs in order to wake ourselves from sleep in order to save ourselves from harm – or at least something that our ancestors developed during more primal time periods.
For now, getting a full and uninterrupted night’s rest is the best way to avoid sleep paralysis. Please seek attention from your doctor if your sleep paralysis is affecting your quality of sleep.