Sleep Paralysis: Causes and Symptoms

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Imagine: you suddenly wake up in the middle of the night. You have trouble breathing and hear strange noises. You want to turn around to see what’s going on but you can’t move a muscle. Meanwhile, the sounds get louder; you hear the door open and footsteps towards your bed. Soft voices whisper in your ear. You want to scream for help, but your voice isn’t cooperating.

What is Sleep Paralysis

It may sound like the dramatic start of a substandard horror film, but for some people, this is a (daily) reality, caused by a still relatively unknown sleep disorder: better known as ‘Sleep Paralysis’.

During sleep paralysis, your body is partially or completely paralyzed. This is for good reason. Suppose you dream about an exciting tennis match or you fight a mythical dragon, then it is important for the quality of your night’s sleep that you do not actually perform all those movements.

Sleep paralysis is a remarkable phenomenon. You feel that you are awake, but your body is not yet responding to your mental commands. So you can’t move, you can’t talk and therefore you can’t get up. In addition, sleep paralysis is often accompanied by hallucinations: you see, hear or feel things that are not there. The main symptoms of sleep paralysis are:

  • You can’t move (muscle paralysis)
  • You can’t talk
  • You can (sometimes) see
  • You hear sounds that are not there (footsteps, doors, voices, etc.)
  • You see people who are not there (Incubus syndrome)
  • You feel like someone is choking you (Old Hag syndrome)
  • You feel a buzzing or pounding in your head or ears
  • You are anxious and panicky
  • You feel floaty

Note: Not everyone has the same symptoms of sleep paralysis.

REM sleep

To prevent such practices, your body automatically switches on paralysis the moment you fall into REM sleep. REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep and the stage in which we dream. If you wake up just before or just after REM sleep, your brain may quietly continue dreaming and present you the most bizarre scenes in your own bedroom, all while you can’t even move your little pinky yet.

Fortunately, the symptoms are not that bad for everyone, but there is a small percentage of the population who say they suffer from sleep paralysis every night. Only recently has much attention been paid to sleep disorders by the western world. For example, a documentary-style film ( The Nightmare ) can be seen on Netflix, in which people explain their experiences with sleep paralysis. Try to get some sleep after seeing that movie!

Half awake, half dreaming

If you hallucinate during sleep paralysis, this is probably because you are half dreaming and half awake, so that the dream world is projected onto reality. The most common hallucinations during sleep paralysis are:

  • Hearing footsteps or voices, opening doors or windows.
  • The feeling of being lifted up.
  • The feeling that someone is sitting on your chest (an evil presence).
  • The letter or strange patterns appear on the wall, sometimes written in blood.
  • The feeling that someone is present in the room, a shadow or person dressed in black.

Because sleep paralysis is a thing of all times and for all kinds of people, it is sometimes associated with paranormal events; one experiences the hallucinations as something outside our world. There are three paranormal experiences that often keep coming back.

Old Hag Syndrome 

The most common hallucination is one that isn’t very fresh: the feeling that there is a demonic creature sitting on your chest, trying to suffocate you. It is very obvious that many folk legends have arisen from this, such as the Incubus: a male demon that sat on the chests of women in the night with the intention of raping them. The legend of the Incubus can be found in different cultures around the world, and has also been the inspiration for many books and works of art, for example, the well-known painting ‘The Nightmare’ by John Henry Fuseli, and also seems to be the inspiration for folk legends such as for example vampires.

Withdrawal 

Also called an ‘out of body experience’. People who experience this have the feeling that they rise above their own body, float upwards, and can look down on their own, still sleeping bodies. This can be a very surreal and terrifying sensation. A malfunction in the coordination of brain activity and muscle tension could be an explanation.

Read Also: Myths vs Facts – A Sleep Apnea Revelation

Sleep paralysis can be very frightening. Here are a few causes, solutions, and pointers for sleep paralysis…

Sleep paralysis is not supernatural

Because of the hallucinations, sleep paralysis is often associated with supernatural phenomena. However, sleep paralysis has nothing to do with ghosts, monsters or aliens. While the experience of ghostly apparitions can be very realistic, they are similar to sensations and events in a nightmare. However, the nightmare comes across as exceptionally real because you feel like you are already awake.

The paralysis doesn’t last very long

Sleep paralysis has many degrees. There are those who sporadically cannot wake up… And there are those who go through profound and dramatic sleep paralysis up to 10 times per sleep cycle. Usually, sleep paralysis only lasts 1 to 3 minutes, but it feels like an eternity.

Sleep paralysis can feel like ‘disembarking’

During sleep paralysis, some people experience a sensation as if they are floating above their bed or even rising above their own body. If you are spiritually inclined, you might call this principle “out of position” or a “near-death experience”. However, this experience is completely earthly and is caused by, among other things, your brain activity, blood pressure and sense of balance during sleep.

Being able to look around during your paralysis…

A hallmark of sleep paralysis is that people can look around during their sleep paralysis. Sometimes the eyes are actually open and can even be moved; dream and reality can then merge. Often, however, nothing is really seen but only dreamed. The image in question (bedroom etc.) is then relived so often that you can literally dream it.

Knocking-in the head & ringing in the ears

In many people, sleep paralysis is accompanied by a ringing in the ears (ringing in the ears) and in the head (“head murmur”). Sometimes there is also an “electric shock” or “explosion” in the head or a knocking or banging in the head or ears. Pressure on the temples and a pressing headache are also not uncommon. This mainly has to do with circulation and blood pressure during sleep.

Sleep paralysis due to lying on the back

Most people only suffer from sleep paralysis when they lie on their backs. If you lie on your back, there is a greater chance that your muscles will come out of their sleep state too late. In addition, the chance of a feeling of pressure or suffocation is greater if you sleep on your back. Your own bodyweight feels much heavier during your sleep paralysis, and that weight is mainly in the abdomen.

Try to Wake up…

If you can’t wake up during your sleep paralysis, it’s best to try to focus on detail. For example, try to focus on a word, a fingertip, or a big toe. As soon as you get a grip on detail, the rest of your body usually follows. In short, when you can coax one aspect of your body into a response, the rest of your body is awakened.

Panic attacks due to sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis can cause a feeling of suffocation. You have the idea that you can no longer breathe or that your heart is giving out. This can cause you to panic enormously during your sleep paralysis. Because you can’t express your panic attack and yell for help, the panic will only get worse. Fortunately, suffocation or heart failure doesn’t really happen. Try to realize that!

Sleep paralysis & epilepsy

Epilepsy is often linked to Sleep paralysis. The exact relationship is not clear, but both indications have a neurological background. ( source ) For example, it could be that sleep paralysis is the result of an epileptic seizure during sleep. In addition, there are people whose sleep paralysis has disappeared since taking anticonvulsants (epilepsy drugs). In addition, sleep paralysis has been associated with narcolepsy, sleep apnea, sleep seizures, parasomnia, and related sleep disorders.

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