You wake up, but can’t move a muscle. You feel like something is standing over you or sitting on your chest. You feel impending death, doom or suffocation. Partially conscious, you attempt to struggle, to thrash your arms and legs, or even to scream. But you are totally paralyzed. Frozen in place.
It may sound unreal, but sleep paralysis is indeed a very real experience.
It’s a strange phenomenon that seems to happen to about half the world’s population (or have happened at least once). People usually report it as an unnatural phenomenon, like a ghost or spirit attack. It is less physically painful than it is psychologically. Indeed, feeling attacked or detained, without being able to move or defend yourself can be very alarming but in a nutshell, that is the experience of sleep paralysis.
It was first identified within the scientific community by psychologist, Weir Mitchell, in 1876. Since then, many scientific theories have emerged. Sleep researchers conclude that sleep paralysis is simply a sign that your body doesn’t pass smoothly through the stages of sleep or an inability of the body to perform voluntary movements at sleep onset or upon awakening.
Actually, during sleep, your body alternates between two states of sleep. The REM (rapid eye movement) and the NREM (non rapid eye movement). NREM occurs first and takes place 75 % of your total sleep time. During this state, the body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep state shifts to REM. In this state, the eye movements begin to occur rapidly and dreams occur, but your muscles are turned off, to not physically live your dreams. So you are unconscious, experiencing a variety of sensory experiences, and almost all of your muscles are paralyzed. Thus, sleep paralysis often occurs as a result of an overlap between these two states of sleep (NREM and REM) either before falling asleep or waking up.
This theory seems logical to me but there are many other opposing and equally interesting explanations. However, the most interesting has been the mental and somewhat spiritual experience people often report after an episode of sleep paralysis. In fact, these people report feeling someone in the room with them, sitting on their chest. This experience has been called the “hag phenomena” and has been reported by several people for over centuries. Cultures from everywhere have come up with spiritual and religious explanations for sleep paralysis. In Japan, the problem was termed “kanashibari”. In Newfoundland, “the old hag”. In China, the “ghost oppression” and so on.
People think that it could be a ghost attack, the grim reaper, the devil, Satan, or just a malediction.
Donnaprice, a victim of sleep paralysis, comments on the phenomenon: «this has been happening to me for 40 years. So scary. There have been times when I was afraid to go to sleep. I found out recently that it’s sleep paralysis. I’ve had it happen over and over again in the same evening. Wake up, can’t move, can’t talk, fell like someone is touching me (that’s the worst). I wonder why everyone seems to feel like there is something evil in their room. I’ve read that it’s hallucinations, but why would we all have similar hallucinations? I don’t understand. »
But one question still remains. Is sleep paralysis a mysterious phenomenon or a scientific disorder? What do you think?
Here are some links that may help for more info on Sleep Paralysis:
- (1999) Sleep paralysis. http://www.stanford.edu/~dement/paralysis.html
- Alexis Madrigal, (2009). Freaky Sleep Paralysis: Being Awake in Your Nightmares. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/sleep_paralysis/
- Brandon peters, (2012). Understanding the Terrors of Sleep Paralysis. http://sleepdisorders.about.com/od/commonsleepdisorders/a/Sleep_Paralysis.htm
- Sleep disorder health center. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis
IMAGE CREDIT: meatking