It's very scary, not being able to move and feeling that spirit-like presence in the room. You feel as if you're awake because you don't remember falling asleep, and you can sense someone else in the room, the presence I call the sleep paralysis demon.
If you're lying on your back you may feel a pressure on your chest, as if someone is pinning you down, all adding to the panic and anxiety. You try desperately to move, eventually throwing a pillow or the cover off as you wake gasping for air.
Waking is usually accompanied by a scream, panic breathing and sweats. in the morning you feel energy zapped and pretty terrified by the ordeal.
I know this cycle all too well. I have suffered from sleep paralysis intermittently since a teenager, although it took many years for me to discover that this was linked to lack of sleep and anxiety. For many years I thought my house was haunted, and had become quite used to the spirit sitting on my chest and scaring the hell out of me!
There are many sleep paralysis stories, and many people, even though presented with the facts, still believe the episodes are a haunting of sorts.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Historically, sleep paralysis was considered of the other world, in that a person was possessed or being visited by a spirit. in many countries this is still the case: In some African nations a person is thought to have “the devil on their back”, and in Thailand the ghostly presence is known as ‘Pee Am', a spirit trying to steal/borrow your good karma to pass over to paradise.
In the West, doctors now know that this terrifying presence is simply a projection of the mind and comes from the panic of being paralysed, fuelled by the real-like feeling of being awake. Scientists believe that sleep paralysis may be an explanation for people thinking they've experienced alien abductions and ghostly encounters.
Sleep paralysis is in fact a transition state between wakefulness and rest, characterized by complete muscle atonia (muscle weakness). It can happen when falling asleep or waking up, but usually when a person is falling asleep.
Studies have linked the condition to disorders such as narcolepsy, migraines, anxiety disorders and obstructive sleep apnea. However, sleep paralysis is something most people will experience once in their lifetime, and most people rarely have more than 1-3 episodes in a lifetime – usually during periods of stress.
Sleep paralysis is a parasomnia resulting from inappropriate overlap of the REM stage of sleep and the waking stage of sleep. Polysomnographic studies found that individuals with sleep paralysis had shorter REM sleep latencies than normal along with shortened NREM and REM sleep cycles, and fragmentation of REM sleep. This study supports the observation that disturbance of regular sleeping patterns can instigate an episode of sleep paralysis, because fragmentation of REM sleep commonly occurs when sleep patterns are disrupted and has now been seen in combination with sleep paralysis.
Sleep Paralysis Cures
Outside of those suffering narcolepsy, as explained above, sleep paralysis can be brought on by lack of sleep and sleep anxiety caused by insomnia. It is also thought to be triggered by new sleeping environments, which would make sense for me because I experience the odd random episode when I fly long haul and sleep over at my mom's house.
The good news is that the majority of individuals experiencing sleep paralysis only have sporadic episodes that occur once a month to once a year. However, those experiencing increasingly regular episodes dues to lack of sleep should consider sleep hygiene therapy.
In extreme cases drugs such as tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) are prescribed, but all physicians agree that the primary course of action should be education on better sleeping habits. Another potential cure is to change your sleeping position.
It is widely agreed that sleeping in the supine (on your back) position is believed to cause sleep paralysis because it is possible for the soft palate to collapse and obstruct the airway.
The fact is that the better you sleep the less likely you are to suffer from sleep paralysis. So where possible improve your quality of sleep.