It can be startling when we wake up from a deep sleep and can’t move. Have you experienced this? Where you can’t open your eyelids, move your arms and legs or fingers and toes?
If this has happened to you, you’ve also realized it’s much harder to breathe, as if someone is sitting on your chest and you can’t push them off.
This can last for minutes, but it seems like hours.
If you haven’t experienced this, we’re not describing a scene from a horror movie or book. This is an actual phenomenon that has been unexplained, until now.
These symptoms are stemmed from an unusual sleep phenomenon called sleep paralysis. Though social and psychological factors can influence this, the study of more than 36,000 participants back in 2011 state that it could be much more than that.
According to Business Insider:
7.6% of the general population experience sleep paralysis, which rose to 28.3% in high-risk groups like students with disrupted sleep patterns. It was even higher for those with mental illness at 31.9%.
Daniel Denis, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience and researcher at the Sleep Paralysis Project, explained this type of situation:
When you’re experiencing sleep paralysis, you become conscious. The idea is that your mind wakes up but your body doesn’t.
So, if the brain is awake, why can’t your body function?
This is because of your 3-4 stages of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and one particular REM state.
It’s possible to dream during all of the stages, but dreams experienced in REM sleep are the most vivid and realistic because your brain is the most active then.
The brain is so active during REM sleep that your body becomes paralyzed (REM atonia). Researchers still don’t know the reason for this, but they speculate that it’s so you don’t act out the dream.
Most of the time, people who suddenly wake up can move around freely. It’s when you’re in REM sleep and suddenly awaken that you’re still in a state of REM atonia. This can last anywhere from seconds to minutes.
In rare cases, you could be paralyzes for 10-15 minutes before having the ability to move.
Most people describe a feeling as if they are in the clutches of a presence during their sleep paralysis. Researchers aren’t sure about why so many people feel this way, but they have a few ideas.
One idea is that the mind attempts to create the movement it can’t actually do.
Another is because the amygdala, the part of the brain controlling fear, becomes overactive. Here is how Denis describes it:
You wake up with your amygdala screaming. ‘There’s a threat!’ So your brain has to invent something to fix the paradox of the amygdala being active for no reason.
Types of Sleep Paralysis
As noted from a study performed in a 1999, there are three types of hallucinations that occur during sleep paralysis:
Incubus, Intruder, and Unusual Bodily Experience
This is when people feel pressure on their chest and cannot breathe. However, this is all mental. They’re so afraid that it is affecting their ability to breathe. Also, the body is still in REM breathing mode, which is slow and shallow.
This is an experience where people feel a presence, including visual and/or auditory hallucinations. The writers with Business Insider describe it this way:
…”Hypervigilant state of the midbrain”, which can make people highly aware of then the smallest stimuli and “biased toward cues for threat or danger”. That’s why a small sound can seem horrifying to someone experiencing sleep paralysis.
Unusual Bodily Experiences
These are the people that have an out-of body experience, like they are levitating or flying around the room. It’s so much different than the other ones because different areas of the brain are active when they wake up.
Is there a way to prevent sleep paralysis?
After talking about all of these scary experiences, I bet you’re wondering if this can be prevented in any way. As a matter of fact, there is.
Though these aren’t for sure ways of preventing it, they will considerably decrease the chances of it happening to you.
1. Don’t sleep on your back. Researchers say that side sleeping is the most effective to prevent sleep paralysis.
2. If you wake up and find you cannot move, concentrate on moving only one digit, whether it’s a finger or a tow. Once you can get a muscle to move, the paralysis is broken and you’ll be free to move around.