What causes sleep paralysis? Your fear is a risk!


You may have experienced nightmares. You may have experienced lucid dreaming too. But there is one more thing that is scary and happens at night. You may hallucinate a person entering your room or sitting or your chest or choking you to death. The sad thing here is that you feel tied to your bed and can’t do anything about it. You also lose your ability to speak or shout. This inability is a sign of sleep paralysis. The changes in your sleep-wake cycle and hormones are various causes of sleep paralysis.

When you face an episode of sleep paralysis, you can no longer move your muscles. You start hallucinating–hear and see things, which are not there. Although hallucinations are worse episode after episode, these episodes can last only for a few seconds or minutes. People in their 20s and 30s commonly experience the condition. Besides, it occurs very rarely during your lifetime.

Previously, people used to justify the myths of succubus and incubus- who pin down people to have sex with them- with this condition. It is the moment when people started believing sleep paralysis to be the demon. The demon is different in various parts of the world.

What state of your sleep causes sleep paralysis?

A person can commonly experience sleep paralysis while sleeping or waking up. While sleeping, it is a natural phenomenon that your muscles relax, to prevent you from acting out during dreams (REM stages). You experience an episode when you are aware that you can’t move your legs or arms anymore (because they are relaxing). This condition is hypnagogic or predormital paralysis.

During sleep, transitions between NREM and REM sleep is normal. Nightmares, lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis are all during the REM stages of sleep. While experiencing a fantasy, it is rare that you suddenly wake up from sleep. Unfortunately, if you wake up suddenly from REM sleep, then you can have an episode of sleep paralysis.

The relaxed muscles are under the influence of signals from the brain–like GABA. You are aware of the relaxed and sleeping muscles and realize you can’t move them anymore.

It usually happens while waking up. This condition is hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.

Can people move in REM sleep?

Though most are tied down to the bed during the REM stages, there is a condition in which people can move, talk, punch, or even walk around in their sleep. It is REM sleep behavior. Antipsychotic drugs are the ongoing treatment for this state. It is essential to tackle this condition in early stages because upto 80% of affected individuals gradually develop neurological complications like Parkinson’s disease.

Risk factors

You tend to experience the episode while you suddenly wake up from sleep. It means that there is no proper sleep schedule, and you wake up when your mind and body are busy helping you regain what you lost during a tiring day. Maintaining an appropriate sleep schedule according to your body’s needs can help you overcome the problem.

After a study, they concluded that people who sleep during the day are more prone. Nappers are more susceptible than non-nappers. But, if the nappers have a regular sleep-wake cycle, they remain unaffected.

Other conditions like narcolepsy, sleep disorders (leg cramps), bipolar disease, and mental health disorders can trigger the condition. Medications, substance abuse, and PTSD also contribute to the susceptibility of developing the condition.

Can sleep paralysis cause death?

No, sleep paralysis definitely cannot result in death. Death will not come so suddenly for anyone without any underlying medical conditions. Heart failure, asphyxiation, and injuries can be possible explanations for death during a paralytic attack. Though there are other conditions like sudden death syndrome, sleep apnea, and diphtheria can explain the asphyxiation for death.

What hormone/protein causes sleep paralysis?

Glycine was the first suspected protein. Though researchers blocked the glycine receptors, the subject experienced a paralytic attack. The second suspected molecule was GABA. Researchers then focused on GABA receptors along with glycine. Surprisingly, they observed that glycine receptors responded even to GABA.

In later research, they concluded that GABA and glycine are both critical causes of sleep paralysis. GABA is a brain chemical produced by the Hypothalamus and brainstem. It plays a role in REM sleep by sending signals to the muscles to relax.

The brain is responsible for everything we feel during the paralytic attack.

In sleep, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is inactive. This inactivation helps us differentiate self-awareness in waking and diminution in dreams. Moreover, in the REM stages, the blood pressure, heartbeat, and breathing rate increase. These functions in the REM make it difficult to differentiate reality and dream. When we suddenly wake up from sleep, the cortex is still inactive and is responsible for the nightmare to come alive in front of us.

Sleep paralysis can result in eerie experiences during sleep. An out-of-body experience is common among those. The subject not only observes others in their room, but they can also see themselves attached to the ceiling or anywhere out of their body. This out-of-body experience happens because the temporoparietal region is usually off during sleep. This region helps us differentiate ‘self’ and ‘others.’ It is also the reason why we appear in the third-person perspective in our dreams.

Ever wondered who the shadowy figure is?

The shadowy figure is not a demon or a person who hates you. The mysterious figure is you!

Research shows that people with a missing arm can experience phantom limbs. This feeling means that the person had an internal body map without the missing limbs. The emotional and visual centers of the brain create this map. Apotemnophilia is also a rare condition in which the person is attracted to what he/she misses. Memory and other brain abilities help create a sophisticated shadow of the body map one imagines, resulting in hallucinations. Mirror neurons also contribute to the effect.

The temporoparietal region stores the maps and casts hallucinated projects of one’s own body. As the barrier between ‘self’ and ‘others’ dissolves, the person recognizes their own body as someone else. This increases the fear in one making the shadowy figure more creepy and scary.

In a study, when the subject experiences disruptions in the temporoparietal regions, he/she creates a figure of themselves. Though the figure stands right behind them mimicking their actions, the subject fails to realize it as his own and treats it as a random scary creature.

The concept of fear

As the theories of demons and evil prevail all over the world, the fear persists in an individual. They fear getting attacked by evil before going to bed. This fear increases the chances of a real paralytic attack during sleep. With this fear, when the person tries hard to move during an episode, the disruptions in the region increases, creating more hallucinations. With an increasing number of events over time, they start to believe they are a target of a supernatural creature.

Related: What causes nightmares- Vividly realistic dreams turned bad

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