At an estimated rate of one-in-three adults experiencing sleep paralysis at least once in their lives, it is possible that you will have experienced this terror too! In fact, for centuries, this sleeping disorder was propagated as being caused due to paranormal activities like evil possession and demons that if you google it now, you will find aliens as a reason too! It is actually a neural hiccup during the altered sense of consciousness of (hypnagogic jerk) in the transitioning that occur parallel with sensory hallucinations!
Sleep paralysis is an episode of a sleeper awakening into a paralysis of the body en route to sleep or from a deep sleep. The two times that sleep paralysis can occur are:
- Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis: When your body relaxes into drowsiness to fall asleep, but the auditory neurons replace the drowsiness (alpha waves) to create the muscular weakness or muscle atonia as sleep paralysis.
- Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis: When your body is transitioning out of sleep, delta waves try to pull the body back into sleep by incorporating all disturbances of the external into your dream or slow sleep.
One of the most common parasomnias, sleep paralysis occurs as one of the three following sounds:
- Incubus: heightened pressure on chest that smothers the person resulting in breathing issues and hallucinations like that of being, strangled or sexually harassed by an invisible malevolent being;
- Intruder: a feeling of threatening presence in a closed room like that of sensing an intruder by hallucinatory doorknob openings, shuffling doors, hopping footsteps or seeing an alien/ humanoid/ Shadow.
- Vestibular-motor: Out of body experiences, akin to floating, swirling, spinning, floating, levitating and hovering around one’s own body by feeling out of it;
Age-Old Unscientific Causes of Sleep paralysis
As there are various records of sleep apnea, even as old as humans themselves, but it was discovered scientifically only in late 18th century.
Folklore: As the experience is almost like a near-death experience, sleep paralysis is itself a traumatic disorder. Certain people associate sleep paralysis with the external environment, while certain others relate it to otherworldly occurrences like miracles, demons, possessions and curses.
The hallucinations are heavily visual, auditory and sensory that mental illness is inevitable after sleep paralysis recurs. Certain theories advocate that, people with heightened anxiety about death, near-death and substance abuse can develop a more sensitive hallucination that defines sleep paralysis.
Cause of Sleep Paralysis based on Current Research
Some present research conducted on this little known subject is:
– Researchers conducted a sleep observation on volunteers by eliminating (REM) Rapid Eye Movement in their sleep. In a few days, in all 184 cases, a Sudden Onset of REM (SOREM) happened while they were awake. Moreover, in eight cases sleep paralysis was observed.
Researchers: Takeuchi, Sasaki, Fukuda, Murpy and Inugami;
2005 Research on Sleep Paralysis in Chinese and American Psychiatric Patients:
– Researchers confirmed that higher the rate of panic attacks and PSTD in a patient, higher the chances of sleep paralysis are. They suggested that if the psychological arousal during PTSD/ Panic attack was high, there were mere chances of sleep paralysis occurs soon and recurs thereafter.
Researchers: Chang & Yeung Xu
2005 Research on Sleep Paralysis and Trauma
– Researchers conducted a study on 100 refugees out of which 50% had at least one experience of sleep paralysis. Out of this, 65% were PTSD patients and 15% were non-PTSD patients. The inference also confirmed that severity of PTSD is directly proportional to the sleep paralysis attacks.
Researchers: Pich, Pollack, Hinton, McNally and Chhean
2005 Research on Sleep Paralysis, Depression and Social Anxiety:
– Researchers inferred that patients of social anxiety sensed a presence during the sleep paralysis. They advocate that the current or immediately prior traumatic occurrences weave the hallucinatory images during sleep paralysis.
Researchers: Nielson and Simon
2006 Research on Sleep Paralysis and Anxiety:
– Researchers analysed patients with anxiety disorder to infer that 20% people went through sleep paralysis more than once in their lives. In addition, the diagnosis had not affected the recurrences of sleep paralysis in the patients. These patients also display many sleep disturbances and hence the same has been confirmed as an additive to sleep paralysis.
Researchers: Zalta, Otto, Pollack, Hinton, Simon and Powers
2007 Research on Sleep Paralysis and Depression:
– Researchers conducted studies on patients of depression to infer that depression did not cause sleep paralysis by causing anxiety, but is a distinct trigger to sleep paralysis. They removed diagnosis of antidepressants to the patients and inferred that the same had no influence on the occurrence of sleep paralysis. The study advocates that depression individually causes many sleep disturbances that lead to sleep paralysis.
Researchers: Szklo-Coze, Finn, Mignot and Young
2008 Research on Sleep Paralysis and Social Anxiety
– The researchers conducted a study on individuals with Social anxiety and inferred that sleep paralysis was associated with dysfunctional social imagery. This includes anxiety of the fear of death that triggers near-death experiences. The study advocates that people who have a sense of heightened anxiety had a sense of presence unlike others. This is due to the same people having exaggerated perceptions of waking moments, which appear as hallucinations during the sleep paralysis.
Researchers: Nielson, Stenstorm, Frantova, Donderi, Simard and Solomonova
2008 Sleep Paralysis in African Americans:
– Researchers inferred that occurrences of Sleep Paralysis in African Americans were more common than White Americans. Scientists advocate that most African Americans referred sleep apnea to evil causes more than the white populous. They also state that the contributing factors can be racism and social hardships faced by the same community.
General Causes of Sleep Paralysis-
Of most of the causes of sleep paralysis, the most accepted or centripetal one is that of sleep deprivation. This mid-sleep consciousness is combined with hallucinations as the delta waves or slow sleep stage tries to pull the sleeper back to sleep. This takes place with the help of our mind through displaying the dreams in consciousness along with a paralyzed body. Most times, sleep paralysis occurs parallel to other sleeping disorders like narcolepsy and EHS (Exploding Head Syndrome or The Mind Blowing Head).
As the symptoms of this terrifying sleep disorder can be based on a person’s scariest nightmares, it is diverse across the cultures. There has been very little research done on the subject, but here are certain studies that root scientific cause of sleep paralysis:
Sleep Cycle Problems:
One of the adverse causes of almost all the sleeping disorders, sleep cycle problems is related to sleep deprivation. Whenever our body suffers from extreme sleep deprivation, the circadian rhythm turns erratic.
Supine Sleeping Position:
According to studies, people sleeping on their back have a higher risk of developing issues in their sleeping posture. When a person sleeps in the wrong position, not only does the sleep cycle get erratic, but deep sleep or REM sleep never occurs as well!
Hypnagogic jerks or sleep starts:
Due to an involuntary twitch, the body’s synchronisations go haywire and lead to hypnic jerk mid-sleep, compelling the sleeper to awaken without falling asleep. This involuntary muscle spasm occurs when during hypnagogia or the transformation of wakefulness to sleep. These can be spontaneous or influenced by light or any other stimuli in the external environment. The symptoms experienced are a feel of free-fall, sensory flash or hallucination.
Trauma due to an injury or event:
Physical and psychological traumas are certainly a trigger to anxiety disorders and should be resolved as soon as it is, cited once.
Depression, Anxiety and Stress:
One of the most prominent causes of any sleep disorder is depression and distress, which in turn might cause anxiety. If unresolved, these can individually cause sleep paralysis as well.
Who is at an increased risk with Sleep Paralysis?
Even though sleep paralysis is more common among many people than it is renowned for, science advocates that the some people may be more at risk. The following lists some events that can trigger sleep paralysis and expose people more to the terrifying risk:
- Incessant Jet Lag: causes erratic circadian rhythm to cause sleep paralyses.
- Work-Shift Sleep Disorder: if it is a consistently changing routine of the sleep cycle, you are sure to affect your circadian rhythm and possibly, develop sleep paralysis.
- Adolescence: studies infer that teenagers are more at risk to this somnipathy than adults.
- Substance Abuse: can cause depression, anxiety, stress and even unhealthy paranoia;
- Clinical Depression, Anxiety and Stress: as the researches above state, stress adds tp anxiety and depression, which has a direct link to causing sleep paralysis in adults.
- Narcolepsy: If you have the previous history of narcolepsy and somnipathy, you are more at risk of developing this terrifying, yet harmless sleep disorder.
- Trauma: People who have undergone a traumatic injury or episode can develop sleep paralysis.
- Sleeping On Your Back: causes irregular sleeping patterns resulting in lack of REM sleep due to the wrong sleeping posture;
Apart from the above, people who frequently consume stimulants like caffeine, alcohol or nicotine are also at a higher risk to develop sleep disturbances, disruption, deprivation and hence, sleep paralysis.
Sleep Paralysis happens for a few seconds in some people and stretches for minutes in certain masses. The first step to treating sleeping paralysis is to accept its occurrence and realise that it is fail-proof harmless! Start your self-help by keeping a diary. If any of your sleep paralysis episodes appear 2+ times in the diary, start a self-help course on sleep paralysis or seek the support of a sleep doctor immediately.