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Sleep paralysis, between scientific explanations and paranormal beliefs

“I am fully awake, I know I’m not sleeping and yet I am completely unable to move. My arms and legs feel like lead, I keep commanding them to start moving, but they will not obey me and this sense of helplessness scares me to death! What disease is this? Am I possessed or what?

Not at all, sleep experts reassure us: it is neither an actual disease, nor a demonic attack or an alien intrusion, as has been claimed in certain circles. It is “sleep paralysis”, a benign disorder which seems to “call on” some of us every now and then. Whom does it affect, why and how should we react so we can break its “spell”?

Dr. Sylvie Royant-Parola, psychiatrist and sleep paralysis expert, breaks it down for us.

Sleep paralysis can last from a few seconds to several minutes

The “victims” of sleep paralysis are under the impression that they are wide-awake… However, it is just an impression. As hard as they try, they are unable to wake up or move. Sometimes breathing difficulties make things worse. Fear turns into terror when, on top of everything, they sense a threatening presence in the room.

“Sleep paralysis may last from a few seconds to several minutes and induces the individual an understandable reaction, ranging from fear to anxiety” – Dr. Royant-Parola points out.

The explanation

To all intents and purposes, the affected persons breathe normally and nothing threatens them. The reason why they cannot breathe is that, while they think they are awake, they are in fact somewhere between dream and reality. Their perception of things is altered, their senses are deceived. The feeling that “there is someone here, there is a threatening presence beside me” is the result of visual and auditory hallucinations that sometimes go with sleep paralysis.

Sorcery, UFOs or demons?

Until the nineteenth century it was believed that the specific symptoms of sleep paralysis were inflicted by evil forces: it was considered that the affected individuals were possessed by demons or were victims of sorcery. In the century that followed it was even claimed that sleep paralysis was the effect of alien interference, specifically the consequence of UFOs crossing the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists take the ball to their court and explain the whole phenomenon with their own methods: our sleep consists in a series of linked cycles going on throughout the night. In the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase, which lasts 15 to 20 minutes, our brain has an intense activity. This is when dreams occur. Sleep paralysis occurs either during REM sleep, when we are about to wake up, or shortly after we fall asleep, when we float between sleep and wakefulness. During REM sleep, muscle atonia (loss of muscle tone) occurs and all our attempts to move fail.

4 in 10 people know what we are talking about

Are there people who are more or less likely to experience sleep paralysis episodes? No, there aren’t, according to experts. Anyone can go through one or several such experiences in a lifetime. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of the world population have been or will be faced with it at a certain point in time. Not even people who have trouble sleeping are more prone to it than others. Except for narcoleptics, with whom sleep paralysis may be a chronic problem. Narcolepsy is by definition a REM sleep anomaly, and the affected people often go through sleep stages where they do not move at all.

Are there remedies?

During such an episode, panic and fear are normal reactions. The “victims” struggle to wake up, to put an end to the terror. However, according to Dr. Royant-Parola, “we should not fight sleep paralysis, nor should we panic; on the contrary, we must give up control. Paralysis will go away and we will be able to continue our restful sleep”.

Here is an extra piece of advice from experts: people who are repeatedly faced with this problem should avoid fueling their own panic and stop seeking paranormal explanations such as: “There is a spirit out there who is trying to communicate with me”, or “I am possessed” etc. Otherwise they will only put themselves through even more stress… right before bedtime.

While there is no specific treatment against sleep paralysis, having a relaxed conversation with a psychotherapist can be a real help: you get a different perspective when things are explained to you from the psychologist’s angle, with all the ins and outs of a complex mechanism such as the human being.

Here is another thing to remember: before going to the appointment with the specialist, the patient should consider preparing for the questions that will follow. The doctor will probably want to find out more about the patient’s sleep “ritual” (habits), the potential family history of sleep disorders, or the patient’s general state of health. At the end of the conversation, the specialist may recommend an assisting tool: a sleep diary, in which the patient will write down each and every symptom experienced over a period of several weeks, describing it as accurately as possible. In addition, the patient may be referred to a sleep specialist for further evaluation.

It comes in by itself, it goes away by itself

In most cases, however, sleep paralysis is a rare, even unique phenomenon. Therefore it is nothing to be afraid of. Especially now that we have finally found out where it comes from and how it goes away. Next time (if there is going to be a next time) we will know how to deal with it: we will ignore it completely. Perhaps it will become too offended to come back.

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