If ever in your life you have experienced a temporary state of paralysis, where you were conscious but absolutely immobile, right before or after being asleep, then you know what this is about – and you probably even dread it.
Sleep Paralysis is a sleep disorder that occurs to almost everyone, at least once in their lifetime. It usually takes place after an individual is in or has already crossed their age of adolescence, but there have been cases where children have also fallen victim to it. Sleep Paralysis is not technically a clinical illness, or dangerous in any way, but it sure is an unpleasant experience. Not being informed about the condition and its unexpected occurrence multiplies the fear that comes with it, making it even worse. But knowledge beats fear and that’s we are here to provide you with some facts about Sleep Paralysis.
1. The Causes of Sleep Paralysis
It has been studied and understood that a disruption in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep can cause major episodes of sleep paralysis. REM sleep, which stops sleepers from physically acting out their dreams, may get disrupted due to the deprivation of sleep or genetics. Other causes include migraines, narcolepsy, sleep apnoea and anxiety disorders. Sleeping in a fixed supine position – face up and body horizontally flat – may also increase the chances of an episode.
2. The State of Paralysis
Technically speaking, it is not a complete state of paralysis as the eyes can still move. However, in an episode, the entire body except the eyes seem to shut down. You will try to wake yourself up while being completely aware of your surroundings but it still wouldn’t work. Very few can move only their fingers or toes but most people have to wait for the episode to fully end, and it can last anywhere between a few seconds and several minutes.
3. When It Occurs
An episode occurs during the transitions between sleep and consciousness when your body has a hard time deciding which one to go for. One that occurs when falling asleep is called ‘hypnagogic’ sleep paralysis while the other, occurring at the time of waking up, is called ‘hypnopompic’ sleep paralysis.
4. History of Sleep Paralysis
The earliest description of sleep paralysis was given by the Dutch Physician; Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck, who recorded a case of a woman that he believed was suffering from ‘nightmares.’ He accurately described a case of sleep paralysis in his report where the woman was experiencing extreme immobility and hallucinations of heavy demons that sat on her chest, restricting it from breathing.
Another famous and historically significant example of sleep paralysis is Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare.’ It exhibits all of the symptoms associated with the condition. Starring a demon that sits on the lying figure’s chest and other abnormal creatures in the back, Fuseli’s work is alleged to be one of the first creative impressions of sleep paralysis.
5. Myth and Folklore
Until the 19th century, the word ‘nightmare’ was used across Mesopotamia and the Roman Empire with reference to sleep paralysis. A demon named ‘Incubus’ – which in Latin means; ‘to sit on’ – was responsible for the episodes of terrifying hallucinations and stillness.
In Japan, the word ‘Kanashibar’ was used to describe the condition, which basically means being bound up with metal. In China, they associate it with ghost oppression. Entertaining their fears, some people today, also blame alien abduction for the condition of sleep paralysis; even though science explains the occurrence of these episodes.
6. It is NOT a disease
Don’t worry, sleep paralysis is not an illness. It happens naturally and can happen to anyone. Most people experience it at least once in their lifetime. The experiences differ from person to person based on their age and mental health. Young adults and people with a history of psychological issues are relatively more prone to it.
7. The Science behind it
Your brain programs your body into adopting a state of paralysis called ‘Atonia’ at the time of sleep. Atonia is a restraint on all of your physical movements that come with your dreams, to prevent you from any serious injuries. In a disorder like sleep paralysis, some misbalance messes up the programming of your brain and your voluntary muscles go to sleep while you’re still conscious.