Sleep Paralysis, a Terrifying Experience

Before going deeper into sleep paralysis, if you were asked what the dream is, how would you define it?

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Before going deeper into sleep paralysis, if you were asked what the dream is, how would you define it? It is not easy to give an answer to this question, at least from a non-academic point of view. Even so, we can say that sleep is a fundamental physiological function.

Likewise, it can be defined as:

“a functional, reversible and cyclic state, with some characteristic manifestations, such as a relative immobility and / or an increase in the threshold of response to external stimuli. At an organic level, variations in biological parameters occur, accompanied by a modification of the mental activity that characterizes dreaming” (Buela-Casal, 1990a).

During sleep great changes in the functioning of the organism take place, including changes in blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate, body temperature and hormonal secretion, among others. In addition, it has also been observed that there are a large number of variables, both physical and behavioral, that are largely responsible for many of the sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders

The international classification of sleep disorders includes four categories (Buela-Casal and Sierra, 1996a):

  • Disomnias: disorders of sleep onset and maintenance, excessive drowsiness and sleep related to the circadian rhythm.
  • Parasomnias: disorders of awakening, of the sleep-wake association and those associated with rapid eye movement sleep (REM or REM).
  • The disorders associated with medical or psychiatric disorders.
  • Other possible disorders that do not have enough information to be considered specific to the dream.

In this article we are going to focus on one type of parasomnia: sleep paralysis.

What is sleep paralysis?

The paranormal events that some people claim to have suffered (diabolical attacks, visits of spirits and abductions by extraterrestrials, among others) probably conceal episodes of the so-called sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis could explain the stories of ghosts and extraterrestrials; during the attack the victims perceive with intensity that presence, usually harmful. They also report unusual kinesthetic sensations: being dragged out of bed, vibrate, fly or fall.

Such episodes can lead to extracorporeal experiences in all their extension. Sleep paralysis may terrify, but it will never be dangerous. Fortunately his episodes only last a few seconds.

However, these events are not paranormal at all. Sleep paralysis is a transient inability to perform any kind of voluntary movement that takes place during the transition period between the dream state and the waking state.

It can occur at the time of beginning to sleep or when waking up and it is usually accompanied by a feeling of great anguish. It usually lasts between one and three minutes, after which the paralysis subsides spontaneously. The paralysis usually disappears automatically if the person is touched or shaken. Although the affected person can not move, he is able to see and hear normally. Even in some cases it can emit sounds.

As we can see, an episode of sleep paralysis is terrifying for the sufferer and is usually remembered with a great deal of anxiety.

“Sleep paralysis is a transitory inability to perform any kind of voluntary movement that takes place during the transition period between the dream state and the waking state.”

Symptoms of sleep paralysis

There are several symptoms that occur during these episodes, most of them terrifying for those who suffer:

  • Visual hallucinations: there are people who say they have seen someone inside the room where they sleep, although they are not able to recognize it. That presence is usually perceived in the periphery of the field of vision or camouflaged in the shadows of the room.
  • Auditory hallucinations: elementary, mechanical and intense sounds are usually perceived, such as buzzing, rumors, hissing, running, roaring, chiming, beating, vibrating, whistling, shrieking or whining. In other cases they are identifiable sounds, such as telephone bells, sirens, tools, electric motor, door knocks, dragging furniture, glass or crockery breaking, strange music, etc.
  • Breathing difficulties: people suffering from sleep paralysis may feel chest pressure, shortness of breath or suffocation. These symptoms cause great anguish and panic already: there is the fear of dying suffocated.
  • Sensation of presence: the person may experience the feeling that in the house where he lives there are strange “presences”. One can even perceive how the presence moves, enters the room and approaches the bed. Some people report that they feel as if they are being watched, but do not know from where.

Why is it produced?

Sleep paralysis is sometimes linked to other disorders such as sleep apnea and, mainly, narcolepsy. However, it usually occurs in isolation, when the person is under a period of strong stress or pressure.

What happens is that at the time of going to sleep there are some neural circuits that remain overexcited due to that stress. Then nightmares occur and the person wakes up abruptly. However, the body does not react so quickly because it is in the REM phase, and therefore the muscles are toneless. That is the reason why the person can not move, even if he is aware of what is happening around him.

If you have ever suffered an episode of this type, do not worry, nothing unusual happens to you. It is important that you do not get scared, although it is not easy. When you remember the episode repeat that it was just a bad dream, something like a nightmare but in which your eyes were open. This will reassure you.

Prevalence and cultural influence

The team of Carrillo-Mora (2017) states that sleep paralysis can occur from once in a lifetime to several episodes per month or year. They stipulate that 7.6% of the general population has suffered. At the same time it is also observed in 28.3% of students and in 39.1% of patients with psychiatric disorders.

An interesting fact that the authors point out is that auditory, visual or tactile hallucinations can be influenced by the culture and age in which we live. They point out that “it is interesting how these elucidations are strongly influenced by the time, traditions and culture of each population, so in each country or region they are given a different supernatural explanation”.