Terror of the Night – Taking the fear out of sleep paralysis

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I felt something in the room. I woke up and opened my eyes. When I looked around, I saw a sort of vivid image, but when I tried to focus on somewhere, it dimmed out or seemed to have vanished ethereally. I felt the weight of a kind of black coming to me. I sensed I was falling, or that I had no support from the bed due to pressure. It was terrifying to not be able to move. I tried to focus on moving my fingers one at a time, until I eventually succeeded, which helped me to escape the night-time terror and properly awaken.” 

-Personal experience with Sleep Paralysis-

Over the centuries, symptoms of sleep dysfunction have been identified in numerous ways and in ancient times frequently attributed to the ‘wicked’ spirit, invisible darkness demons. Nearly every society throughout history has told tales of evil shadow creatures that scare helpless humans at night. People have long sought explanations for the mysterious sleep-time dysfunction and the consequent feelings of fear. 

But do you think that Sleep Paralysis is an event that confirms such illusions or a mysterious paranormal curse? 

Researchers have been finding scientific explanations for this phenomenon and they state that Sleep Paralysis (SP) is relatively common. It is reported among almost 8% of the general population, although the reason or how it occurs is unknown, keeping SP a mystery. SP can be marked by vivid and sometimes bizarre dreams or nightmares where one is awake and consciously aware but paralysed, struggling helplessly with dream images that overwhelm the waking consciousness. 

People might experience hallucinations during their SP including

  • Proprioceptive hallucinations–a sense of moving, floating, flying, out-of-body experiences, spinning or a feeling like going up or down in a lift. 
  • Visual hallucinations-seeing smoke-like substances or intense darkness, seeing weird human-like objects, animals, or even monsters with ample illusions. 
  • Auditory hallucinations-hearing voices, a bell or a phone ringing, footsteps, breathing, talking or whispering, and other sounds or noises. 
  • Tactile hallucinations–a sense of pressure on the bed, being touched or pulled by the limbs or head, vibrating, pain etc. 
  • Sometimes olfactory or gustatory hallucinations. 

Sleep paralysis is highly correlated with negative emotions. Victims of SP commonly experience fear and intense anxiety about their perceptions of the situation. Additionally, the subject may feel terror, anger, and the feeling of dying, erotic feelings, or positive emotions such as joy, and bliss. SP also makes the individual feel as if they were awake, but once the episode is over, they realize they were sleeping, and it was just a dream! 

What does science say?

During sleep, the brain cycles through various stages and they are divided into N-REM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Science provides a basic understanding of SP, claiming it manifests during the REM phase.

Researchers believe SP is caused by the fast heart movement cycle because it occurs as people enter (Hypnagogic/predormital) or get out (Hypnopompic/post dormital) of REM sleep.

During the REM phase, irregular breathing and dreaming occur, and the body is energized. The signals are sent to the spinal cord and motor neurons to shut off movement, creating a temporary inability to move the muscles of one’s limbs. It is a protective measure to save someone from injuring themselves or others while dreaming. When the person suddenly awakens during REM, they cannot move. REM may occur several times throughout the night, since the sleep cycle is repeated. Although irregular breathing doesn’t affect the REM functions, individuals who experience SP might feel like they are struggling to breathe or suffocating. Additionally, researchers explain that the active state of the Amygdala, the brain region primarily associated with emotional processes, generates fearful emotions during the REM stage of sleep and SP. 

Factors that contribute to experiencing sleep paralysis. 

There are several variables associated with SP: sleep deprivation and sleep disorders such as narcolepsy (excessive and uncontrollable daytime sleepiness), obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia disorder, poor mental health, depressive moods, stress, PTSD, tiredness, certain medications, genetics and family history, alcohol and caffeine consumption before bed, unhealthy sleep patterns, sleep on the back, and not enough sleep. 

Preventive methods for SP

  • Getting enough sleep (6-8h)
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, noise and light closer to bedtime
  • Not sleeping on your back 
  • Treatments for narcolepsy 
  • Antidepressants
  • CBT
  • Practicing meditations 

Some people report SP as stressful, while some find it a fascinating phenomenon. Sleep paralysis may last for a few seconds or minutes and all we must do is try to relax and just let it happen, telling ourselves that we’re in control as there’s no immediate danger or health risk. However, the awareness of the attack amongst the public and health professionals is obligatory to minimize post-anxiety and distress that often result from Sleep Paralysis.

By Nishara C. Perera

nishara.chathurangi@gmail.com

Bibliography

Denis, D. (2018). Relationships between sleep paralysis and sleep quality: current insights. PubMed Central. doi:10.2147/NSS.S158600

FUKUDA, K. (2005). Emotions during sleep paralysis and dreaming. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1479-8425.2005.00172.x

Julia Santomauro, Christopher C. (2009, August 24). The psychologist- Terror in the night. Retrieved from the British psychological society: https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/terror-night

M.Gregoryd, D. C. (2018, April). A systematic review of variables associated with sleep paralysis. 38, 141-157. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2017.05.005

Sacks, O. (2012). Hallucinations. Penguins.

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