What Is Sleep Paralysis and What Causes This Bizarre Phenomenon?

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phenomenon of sleep paralysis

What is sleep paralysis? Have you ever heard of this phenomenon? It’s an incredibly uncomfortable experience of being unable to move but being conscious while trying to sleep.

Sleep is often seen as something very simple – a person needs to sleep to recharge. We all sleep at some point, whether we want to or not; it’s a natural occurrence which happens on a regular basis and doesn’t take very much effort. I believe that’s why a lot of us like sleep so much – it’s relaxing and requires no effort from our conscious minds. But, really thinking about sleep you’ll realize that it’s actually an extremely complex mechanic of humanity with varying stages and extremely interwoven things happening in our brains, bodies, and subconscious. With so many things happening and so many defined sequences, there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong, especially in the neural cortex of our brains. One such example is that feeling of falling you get as you drift to sleep when you suddenly jolt awake, physically kicking your cat (or significant other) across the room. Another way things can go awry with this basic function of sleep that we’ve all grown familiar with at some point is the idea of insomnia, or, conversely, narcolepsy. The process of sleep, the ability to attain an REM state (which I once struggled with, as covered in a previous article), and the causality through which our bodies go to re-energize and vitalize our conscious minds is really quite a spectacular and complicated thing.  So, it can also be spectacularly terrifying.

I don’t refer to nightmares. I don’t mean the fear of sleep apnea nor that of “waking up dead”. Not even is my reference to terror associated with the great unknown of different worlds through which some speculate we travel in our dreamscape. I refer to the fear of displacement within oneself, morbid hallucinations, and discomfort of the unknown through the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

What is sleep paralysis?

Many people have been tormented by paralysis while they try to sleep, which is a very strange occurrence, the cause of which can only be speculated about with our current medical knowledge. Some of the hardship or fear, associated with this is known to come from the confusion and lack of control associated with not being able to move but being conscious.

As with anything that people are confused and frightened by, many people have studied this topic throughout history. One such individual, Baland Jalal, a neuroscience specialist from California, had a great way of portraying the event verbally to help people who hadn’t experienced sleep paralysis fully understand what it is they were going through,

Imagine this scenario where you wake up and find you’re paralyzed. Naturally you panic and try to move and so your motor cortex in the brain starts firing and sending all these signals to your limbs. But nothing’s coming back because you’re trapped in this temporary state, and so your brain has no perceptive feedback to create a sense of what your body looks like. This leads to a distortion of your sense of self, and so you might have an out of body experience, or you might see various shapes appear which are actually disfigured versions of you. You have this vague sense that there’s something in the room with you, and feel a bit like a prey animal.

The first part about the perception of an out of body experience as well as the visual hallucination of various distorted versions of yourself can be explained by the lack of self-awareness associated with not receiving feedback from our neural network, throwing our cortex out of control, and forcing our brains to attempt to create a reality which our conscious mind will accept – while not being conscious at all… It definitely does seem like an incredibly uncomfortable experience.

What causes sleep paralysis?

So what exactly is going on with all of this? Why is it that we get trapped in our own bodies, conscious and wanting to move, not asleep, but our bodies seem to be “unplugged” from our brains? Well, unfortunately, there is yet to be a single actual clinical study conducted on this from a scientific development and understanding perspective due to various reasons, one of which being the inability to easily duplicate the condition. However, a significant amount of speculation has been made on the topic, some of which is believed to be the root of a lot of lore in ancient cultures, sometimes even being traced to vampires and demonic possession. Honestly, from my standpoint and knowing people who have felt the daunting and suffocating presence of unknown entities, and my ability to see energy, I’m not discounting that some cases of sleep paralysis are caused by these sorts of things – a vampire gripping and crippling a person’s ability to fight back while they feed on their energy, or a ghoul drinking from our souls, or even the possibility of extra-terrestrial influence. However, science has attempted to put a definition to the causality, as I stated before regarding the hallucinations, caused by our brains trying to put the circumstances in a sensible order while synapses are firing out of order. In something which cannot be easily studied and has so much fear associated with it, it’s very hard to say whether spiritual or scientific causes are to blame, so, I encourage my readers to do some further research and draw your own conclusions, for sure.

According to Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University and author of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives, “We think there’s something about the extra weight when we’re in a supine position that makes it more likely.”

This statement suggests that people who sleep on their sides are less likely to experience sleep paralysis. I find this interesting because physical properties and nerve locations associated with the primary brain functions, especially associated with feedback from the neural cortex, shouldn’t be influenced by position or orientation, and weight should only serve to provide sensory through our nerves. As such, while I believe this is likely a condition which can be explained by science, this has me leaning back to the superstitious and spiritual side of life, considering the amount of lore associated with entities needing easy access to our chests and their propensity toward coming at us while we sleep – this would even further define the cause of most victims of this condition feeling like prey animals.

While we don’t know the cause or basis of sleep paralysis, it does bring to light the fact that sleep, while seeming so simple and basic, is actually an incredibly complex mechanism. The level of terror which must be experienced by people who go through these 5-second to 20-minute excursions is difficult to understand without having to experience it ourselves, and I, for one, am okay with keeping this off of my bucket list. However, these episodes are far more common than most people realize, and almost everybody is likely to experience some form of sleep paralysis at some point during their lives. If you have to go through this terrifying experience, keep in mind, you’re not alone, and the hallucinations subside almost immediately after you’re able to move again.

Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? If yes, please share your experiences in the comments below!

Image credit: Steven Stahlberg

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Nick Harding

I'm an automation engineer who started out with just a drafting degree, but didn't want to stop learning. Ideally every day I find someone who needs help and do whatever I can to make their day. I enjoy expressing myself, whether it's through writing, story telling, singing or playing guitar; I love to teach others, as well as myself. My strongest drive is the interest in learning everything I can know, and speculating on topics that I can't. I know many people will react with the question, "an engineer with an open mind!?" Yes, I find it hard to disbelieve the things which we can see - since I am able to see energy, I am able to consider other potentials which are also deemed "non-scientific".




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6 Comments

  1. Thea Dunlap March 4, 2016 at 4:09 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this information. I frequently get Sleep Paralysis and it is a major factor that I can’t get enough sleep because of it. Hopefully this info will be a little helpful for me to understand this Phenomenon.

  2. JD March 8, 2016 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    I frequently get clients that has sleep paralysis. The cause seem to be that they are possessed by some kind of demon or spirit and if they fall on their back asleep they are more open to an attack. Once these entities has been cleared they no longer have sleep paralysis.

    It may sound strange but that’s my findings.

  3. Heather March 15, 2016 at 5:30 am - Reply

    Lately I’ve been getting this more – only when I lay on my back. It’s intense, but I’ve trained myself to calm down while paralyzed, knowing that it’s just sleep paralysis. That way I seem to come out of it quicker. But it’s scary in the moment!

  4. Lola April 11, 2016 at 10:40 pm - Reply

    I no longer have it…when I was about 12 I when to my bed a few minutes after I couldn’t move I try to scream for help to my mom..my legs when slowly up in the air remain in the air for a few minutes then slowly when down then I was release…another time it happen I didn’t fight it at first my legs was in the air for to long got frightening I struggle to get free my legs shift to the left and then to the right in the air and then down very fast..crazy scare

  5. M Catalano April 27, 2016 at 5:44 am - Reply

    I have had sleep paralysis a few times while on my back and also the fear of falling in my dream so frightening it lasts up to 3 min my heart starts pounding in my chest and you get so out of breath. I am so glad when I wake up and can finally move-

  6. Stuart July 6, 2016 at 8:29 am - Reply

    I and my sister have experienced sleep paralysis our whole lives. I’m 55, and it seems to come over me if I’ve gotten too much sleep. But not always. If I’m drifting off to sleep then think I’d rather not be laying the way I am because I’ll be uncomfortable in this position to sleep, suddenly I’m cought between awake and sleep. Its very annoying and I’ve tried my best to reconcile a solution between my conscience and un-sub conscience. What seems to be too scary is to allow myself to give in and go to complete sleep. I fight it. I notice clearly often things surrounding me, but moving anything physically is so difficult. Sometimes I win and exalt myself out to the awake world, most often not. Then I won’t realize just when I have gone on out. I can control my breathing though when in the neither-world. If I can muster it I will let out a call out with my voice, faintly, to my wife, and that’s her signal to shake me awake. I’m very grateful when she does, and if she ignores me I’m not a happy camper! Years ago my mother told me that when you are asleep your mind turns off your ability to move, in order that you don’t hurt yourself. That doesn’t comfort me though.

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