Understanding Sleep Paralysis

by Roohi

Aware and awake in the middle of the night but not able to move? Feeling an entity such as an alien or witch in the room choking you? If yes, you probably have sleep paralysis.

There are very few people who will admit that they have sleep paralysis. Most hide it due to a fear of being labeled as mentally ill. Some feel they are being visited by devils and aliens. Most people don’t understand it.

The truth is that sleep paralysis is a common problem which refers to a period when the person is unable to perform voluntary movements while sleeping. Since it is often accompanied by hallucinations of witches and demons, it is also commonly known as the Old Hag Syndrome. Anyone who has had an episode of sleep paralysis knows how scary it can be. This article aims at explaining what sleep paralysis is exactly and what its main symptoms are.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis has been found to occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Dreaming occurs during the REM sleep cycle. The brain sends signals to the body which help the body to move. But when the brain and the body enter the REM stage of sleep, the muscles relax and the brain blocks these signals. This paralyzes the body and prevents the dreamer from physically acting out the dreams. So, paralysis occurs naturally as part of REM sleep. 

However, sleep paralysis occurs when the individual wakes up, but the brain is still in dream state. The brain, therefore, keeps the paralysis going on. The individual is in a half-dream and half-awake state. The person is, thus, fully conscious, but unable to move. 

It can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Sleep paralysis usually occurs when a person is falling asleep or when the person is waking up. The inability to move is also accompanied by hallucinations. The individual often feels or senses the presence of someone who is crushing him/her or watching closely.

What are the factors responsible for sleep paralysis?

Factors which are often believed to cause an episode of sleep paralysis include sleeping on your back, irregular sleeping schedules, excessive stress, sudden changes in lifestyle and environment, too much caffeine or alcohol, certain medications, and a lucid dream which precedes the sleep paralysis episode. 

Sleep paralysis is also associated with disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder, in which the individual experiences extreme tiredness leading to uncontrollable and extreme daytime sleepiness.

What are the main symptoms of sleep paralysis?

There are mainly two symptoms of sleep paralysis: paralysis and hallucinations. These are described below. 

Paralysis - Individuals in a state of sleep paralysis feel that they are aware and awake. But even though they think they are awake, they are unable to move any part of their body. They have some control over their blinking and breathing. But they cannot move, speak or cry out. Very slight movements of the body may occur, but they are often very difficult for the individual to accomplish.  

Hallucinations - Along with this inability to move, individuals often report experiencing hallucinations. When sleep paralysis occurs during the time the individual is falling asleep, the accompanying hallucinations are called “hynagogic”. When the sleep paralysis occurs while the person is waking up, the hallucinations are referred as hypnopompic”. 

These hallucinations can involve feeling or sensing the presence of an entity in the room. They may not see it, but feel that they are being watched, monitored and even controlled by this entity. They may even hear strange sounds and noises. The entity may also be seen in many cases as a shadow. Individuals often feel being pinned down to their bed as if someone is trying to hold them down. Often a pressure is felt on the chest as if a heavy object has been placed on it. 

They also experience kinesthetic sensations of being dragged out of bed or floating in the air. These hallucinations are why people believe that they are in the possession of and old witch or an evil spirit. 

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What should you do if you experience an episode of sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is quite a common phenomenon and many people experience at least one episode during their life. However, if the episodes occur too often or last for too long, it may be signs of narcolepsy. Isolated sleep paralysis episodes usually don’t require any treatment. These can be controlled by reducing stress, having regular sleeping patterns, sleeping on the side, and exercising regularly. 

Besides this, during an episode, an individual should try and make some movements. Any kind of movement will help the brain get out of its dream state and release the body paralysis. So, you can wiggle your toes, try to scream, or any other movement that wakes you up fully. 

Some people also find that going back to sleep helps them get out of this very frightening episode. Understanding and accepting the fact that this is just a sleep disorder will help an individual deal with such instances much more easily. 

Keep in mind that the more you think that this is something beyond your control the more likely you are going to suffer an episode of sleep paralysis. While praying to God during an episode is definitely a positive step, being scared of that witch or demon which you think is trying to kill you is not going to be very helpful. 

In simple words, sleep paralysis has nothing to do with the paranormal. It’s just a condition where your brain just takes a few more seconds to come out of its dream state. And this half-awake and half-dream state makes you experience certain feelings and perceptions which are not real and which you don’t experience when you are fully awake or fully asleep. So, if you think the old witch is bothering you every night, consult a physician.


Updated: 03/15/2013, Roohi
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Roohi on 10/30/2012

Glad that you don't have any of these on a regular basis, Brenda. Just stay free of stress, take care of yourself, be happy and you should be fine. Thanks for stopping by!

BrendaReeves on 10/30/2012

I had one of these after I had come home with my first baby. I was napping on the couch. I opened my eyes but couldn't move. Luckily, I didn't have any scary hallucinations. I remember my grandfather telling me he had them -- more than once.

Roohi on 10/18/2012

Thanks for stopping by! Glad to know that you haven't had these episodes recently.

Ragtimelil on 10/17/2012

Oooo I had those some years ago. I didn't know what it was. It definitely was scary. Thanks for explaining it. Haven't had any lately.

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