The Scary and The Truth
As you lie in your bed and feel your muscles start to slowly relax, you expect your mind-wandering off into dream land-to shortly follow. All of a sudden you realize that you are still awake, but you cannot move. Everything starts to spin and distort, you start getting hot, your chest starts feeling heavy, and you start freaking out. Human nature quickly begins to scream at you to escape; to somehow wake up and just end the nightmare. So you-in your completely conscious state-try with all your might to move just one finger, kick one leg, or just swing one arm over your body, knowing your success would bring you back from the mysterious hell in which you’ve found yourself. Welcome to the world of Sleep Paralysis.
First like to start off by stating, Sleep Paralysis is NOT dangerous. Yes, that horrifying, mind-altering experience explained above is not dangerous, nor is it the result of little Incubus demons sitting on your chest as you sleep-Yes, our ancestors really did believe this. Sleep Paralysis is actually a protective mechanism used by our bodies to pretty much stop us from doing stupid stuff to ourselves while resting. You might wonder, Well, how does someone sleepwalk, then? The answer, my friends, is they have a problem with the exact same system that causes Sleep Paralysis: Where Sleep Paralysis sufferers cannot move their muscles when their minds are still awake, Sleepwalkers cannot stop moving their muscles when their minds are asleep.
Sleep paralysis occurs when Peripheral Atonia comes into the dreamer’s consciousness accidentally. Peripheral Atonia is basically a lack of normal tension or muscle tone, resulting in the perception of paralysis. This mechanism is the primary means of inhibiting movements during REM and non REM sleep. Originally believed to be the result of the neurotransmitter Glycine, more recent work has shown blocking Glycine receptors fails to affect Atonia, leaving the mysterious mechanism of paralysis unknown (Brooks, 2008). Furthermore, many people report the eyes to be the only muscles unaffected during the paralyzed state, leaving one able to view the 180 degrees of the visual spectrum, but unable interact with the world around them.
Not everyone experiences sleep paralysis, it could happen only once or many times in a persons life, and can occur more than once during rest. 60% of the population has experienced Sleep Paralysis at least once, whereas 6% experience it quite frequently. Additionally, there are two types: Hypnagogic Paralysis occurs when one tries to go to sleep, whereas Hypnopompic Paralysis occurs upon waking up. Overall though, the most interesting aspect of the experience is what you perceive, and apparently it varies quite drastically.
Some people hear voices, sometimes of a threatening or terrifying nature, reminiscent of the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics. Some of the more common phenomena are heaviness on the chest and feelings of suffocation. Other experiences are weird alterations of 3D depth perception, strange or familiar smells or tastes, feelings of levitation, tactile hallucinations, feelings of heat, or visual hallucinations of shadows, people, or intruders (Peters, 2012).
Personally, I have experienced a variety of phenomena during Sleep Paralysis. I’ve heard a woman shrieking, felt my entire body
begin vibrating, seen a shadow of a woman moving towards me in the dark, and quite enjoyed John Lennon-a black-and-white poster on the opposite wall of my bedroom- kneeling at the side of my bed upon waking one morning.
The position of your body, and the timing of sleep can also affect the chances of experiencing Sleep Paralysis (Cheyne, 2002). Many find paralysis most common when they fall asleep sitting upright, an experience that kept my childhood Car and Airplane rides personally quite frightening, while rather entertaining for everyone else. When failing to stop myself from sleeping, I quite successfully astounded others who believed me to be asleep, by regurgitating entire conversations after forcing myself out of the paralyzed state.
The Emotional Effect
Although I’ve emphasized Sleep Paralysis is not physically dangerous, there are emotional implications. The frightening, terrifying, life-threatening, feelings experienced during the Paralysis not only affect an individual at that moment in time, but also affect a persons mentality and emotions afterwards. In the post to follow, I will explore a recent study on Sleep Paralysis, finding that the distress experienced during the event might actually carry over to the next day, affecting your personal interactions with the world around you.