What is sleep paralysis and why do we get it?

You may have experienced this weird phenomenon yourself. You’re laying on your back asleep and begin to wake, or so you think. You are fully conscious but you can’t move your body. You start to panic. You’re willing something in your body to move but it won’t. After what seems like an eternity you regain movement and everything is back to normal.

This is known as sleep paralysis, a condition where you are unable to move or speak that happens when waking up, but can also happen when falling asleep. Some people report they feel pressure on their bodies or are choking, while others have say they feel an evil presence nearby. Some feel as if  they are floating away from their body, or are about to die. In the past it was even believed to be caused by demonic possession.

It isn’t caused by demons, it is caused by the mechanism that relaxes your muscles as you sleep persisting when you have woken up, so you don’t need to bother with any demon banishing rituals.

Sleep paralysis shouldn’t cause too much worry though. Researchers have found that it is a result of your body not progressing through the different stages of sleep smoothly, although very rarely there can be underlying psychiatric problems. You are more likely to suffer from sleep paralysis if you also have narcolepsy and are at increased risk with sleep deprivation, have irregular sleeping patterns or are younger (teenagers and young adults are more likely to get it).

If it happens to you, don’t panic. This intensifies the distress you might feel, and the more you relax the quicker it will pass. Trying to cough, making a fist or wriggling your toes can help to stop your muscles from relaxing and give you control again.

Sam McMaster

Image: the sleep paralysis project

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