Did you ever awaken and find yourself unable to move? Perhaps you sensed a presence in your room or a pressure on your chest. This is sleep paralysis. It is a common disorder that affects millions of people. Most believe it occurs as we are on the edge of REM sleep. The disorder has been connected with such hallucinogenic events such as alien abduction or an evil presence. Sleep paralysis is an inability to move or speak, occasionally accompanied by hallucinations, for up to several minutes upon awakening or just before falling asleep.
The symptoms of sleep paralysis are often associated with REM sleep. This is because during REM sleep, except for the diaphragm, we are more or less paralyzed from the neck down as we dream (Regestein 30). It is when we enter this dream world or exit we can become a victim of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis at the onset of nap was well described by a patient of Edward Binns, a physician writing in the 1850s, about what he termed day-mares (Mendelson 223):
During the intensely hot summer of 1825, I experienced an attack of this affliction. Immediately after dining, I threw myself on my back upon a sofa, and, before I was aware was seized with difficult respiration, extreme dread, and the utter incapability of motion or speech. I could neither move nor cry, while the breath came from my chest in broken and suffocating paroxysms. During all this time I was perfectly awake; I saw the light glaring in the windows in broad sultry streams; I felt the intense heat of the day pervading my frame; and heard distinctly the different noises in the street, and even the ticking of my own watch, which I had placed on the cushion beside me; I had at the same time, the consciousness of flies buzzing around and settling with annoying pertinacity on my face. During the whole fit, judgment was never for a moment suspended. I felt assured that I labored under incubus. I even endeavored to reason myself out of the feeling of dread which filled my mind, and longed, with insufferable ardour, for someone to open the door, and dissolve the spell which bound me in its fetters. The fit did not continue above five minutes: by degrees I recovered the use of sense of motion; and, as soon as they were so far restored as to enable me to call out and move my limbs, it wore insensibly away.
Episodes of sleep paralysis are often accompanied by hypnogogic hallucinations (Mendelson 223). These are commonly mistaken for an evil presence, or having a pressing weight on your chest. At the turn of the century this presence was known as the Old Hag, or The witch (Larkin).
Sleep paralysis is a common condition with a prevalence of 5-62%, although most affected people have single or infrequent episodes (Dahlitz). Occasionally sleep paralysis is found to run in a family, and it can be associated with other disorders of hypersomnia, such as sleep apnea (Becker 81). Narcolepsy has also been linked with sleep paralysis; both are thought to be REM sleep disorders (Siegel). Gender and race do not seem to be a factor of risk for this disorder. The episodes of sleep paralysis seem to range from ages 5-35 (Dahlitz). The use of anxiolytic medicines, psychiatric disorders and high anxiety can also contribute to sleep paralysis (Larkin).
The treatment for sleep paralysis is limited, because so little is known about REM sleep. Most treatments are focused not on sleep paralysis but on the disorders linked to it. Treatment for sleep apnea or narcolepsy will usually help with sleep paralysis (Siegel). Once in the grip of sleep paralysis something as simple as a touch from another person can end the ordeal. Most of the time one simply waits for it to pass (Becker). As with most aspects of sleep, sleep disorders, and REM dreams, science does not have many answers. There is so much unknown about why our bodies need to sleep and dream, and the disorders that are caused when we do not sleep properly. Sleep paralysis is but a small part of the mystery of sleep: as science unravels this mystery we may know more about the causes of sleep paralysis.
The phenomenon of sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience: many who suffer can feel tremendous anxiety and fear, even though occurrences are considered as harmless as a bad dream. The disorder does not discriminate on the basis of race or gender, but age sometimes is a factor. Treatment for sleep paralysis is limited; in general, doctors treat the disorders linked to sleep paralysis such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis continues to be one of the many mysteries of the human brain, which science will continue to investigate.