Demons Versus Science

Brunette woman suffering from sleep paralysis

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

The feeling of being paralyzed while attempting to fall asleep or wake up is known as sleep paralysis. Folklore has it that sleep paralysis is an attack by demonic spirits who sit on your chest in the middle of the night and terrorize you. But science has it that sleep paralysis is a sign that your mind and body are not moving smoothly through the different stages of sleep.

People who experience sleep paralysis are conscious but feel like they cannot move or speak for up to a few minutes; some also describe a sense of choking or pressure. The symptoms occur when a person passes between the stages of sleep and wakefulness.

There are two variants of sleep paralysis: hypnogogic and hypnopompic. Hypnogogic sleep paralysis occurs when you are attempting to fall asleep and hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs as you are waking up. In the process of falling asleep, your body relaxes and your mind drifts off into sleep. With sleep paralysis, instead of your mind drifting off into sleep, you remain aware of the process of falling asleep and find yourself unable to move or speak.

The sleep cycle alternates between NREM and REM sleep. 75% of sleep occurs in the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) stage, followed by a period of REM sleep. During the REM stage is when your eyes move quickly, your muscles remain relaxed or “turned off” and dreams occur. During hypnopompic sleep paralysis, you become aware of your surroundings before the REM cycle has ended, resulting in the inability to move or speak.

Sleep paralysis is more common than you think, with 4 out of 10 people suffering from it. It usually is first noticed during adolescence but can occur at any age. It is not clear what causes sleep paralysis, but it is believed that lack of sleep, stress, bipolar disorder, ADHD medications and substance abuse are some of the factors that may be linked to sleep paralysis.

There are no treatments that specifically target sleep paralysis. Improving your sleep habits, treating any comorbid mental illness that may contribute to poor sleep or treating an undiagnosed sleep disorder are some ways of helping relieve sleep paralysis.

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