If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night and been unable to move or seen some kind of dark figure in your room, you’ve probably done a quick Google and learned about sleep paralysis and “witch hag syndrome.”
Some of you who have experienced this must be convinced that an evil figure was lying in wait as you attempted to move, but your bodies just wouldn’t budge. You tried to scream, but nothing came out. What you have experienced is a terrifying and mysterious sleep disorder or parasomnia which has been experienced by people possibly since the beginning of mankind.
Researchers define sleep paralysis as “a common, generally benign, parasomnia characterized by brief episodes of inability to move or speak combined with waking consciousness.” It can be an exceptionally scary time for those afflicted with this weird phenomenon, but despite former beliefs, the feeling of paralysis is not caused by supernatural beings.
According to specialized literature, sleep paralysis falls into three distinct categories:
1. a sensed presence, or intruder hallucinations, in which the person feels the presence of an evil, threatening the individual.
2. incubus hallucinations, in which the person might feel someone or something pressing down uncomfortably, even painfully, on their chest or abdomen, or trying to choke them.
3. vestibular-motor hallucinations, during which the individual thinks that they are floating, flying, or moving – these may also sometimes include out-of-body experiences, in which a person thinks that their spirit or mind has left their body and is moving and observing events from above.
When does sleep paralysis happen and what causes it? During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep the brain has vivid dreams, while the muscles of the body are essentially turned off. While sleeping, the muscles are unable to move so that the person won’t be able to act out dreams with their body. Sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up before REM is finished. The person will be conscious, but the body’s ability to move hasn’t been turned back on yet.
Several things can bring on episodes of sleep paralysis. For example, sleep deprivation, some medications and some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea are triggers. Also, sleep paralysis is commonly seen in patients with narcolepsy.
Youth also seems to be a factor in the occurrence of sleep paralysis. According to the Mayo Clinic, this disorder is more likely to happen to people between the ages of 10 and 25. Sleep paralysis is also more prevalent in those with post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder.
Lastly, sleep paralysis may also be genetic, according to a study done on 862 twins and siblings although “it’s still a preliminary finding” said Daniel Denis, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield in England and co-author of the Journal of Sleep Research.