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Techly Explains: What is sleep paralysis and can it be cured?

When we sleep, our bodies have a nifty trick for keeping us out of trouble.

To stop us from taking a stroll out a window or doing some risky “sleep cooking”, our bodies are temporarily paralysed during some stages of sleep. That’s normal and is no cause for alarm. For the most part, we are asleep anyway, so we don’t even know about it. Ignorance is bliss.

But for some unlucky people, that paralysed state persists for a few seconds or minutes upon waking or just prior to sleeping.

These people may find themselves fully awake, yet unable to move or talk. Sound terrifying? It’s called “sleep paralysis”, and it’s so spooky that there is a horror documentary about it.

How common is it?

There have been many studies that have looked into the frequency of sleep paralysis.

One study synthesised the results of 35 studies and found that 7.6 percent of the general population, 28.3 percent of students and 31.9 percent of psychiatric patients had experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis.

Students live in the perfect storm of adolescence and lack of sleep, which explains why their numbers are so high. In another study, sleep paralysis was found to affect 41.9 percent of Canadian students and 38.9 percent of Japanese students.

What does it feel like?

Episodes of sleep paralysis have been recorded for centuries across a wide range of cultures.

Psychologists have divided the associated experiences into three categories:

  • Intruder, comprising a sense of something being present, fear and hallucinations,
  • Incubus, which involves a pressure on the chest, breathing difficulties and chest pain
  • Unusual Bodily Experiences, consisting of flying sensations, out-of-body experiences or even feelings of bliss.
  • During the Middle Ages, it was common to associate the Intruder subset with witches. However, in recent years, the Western world has seen a rise of alien abduction explanations taking over the Intruder category. This is no doubt due to conspiracy theories surrounding the Roswell incident and shows like X Files which have brought aliens to the forefront of the public consciousness. This also shows that there is an element of fashion to how people describe these experiences.

    In Latin cultures, the descriptions tend to towards the Incubus. In Catalonia for example, a creature called a Pesanta (which looks like a dog or a cat), invades the house at night and stands on victims’ chests. Japan has something similar too, called a kanashibari. The English translation of kanashibari is “tightly bound” or “tied down”, and it refers to an evil demon that puts pressure on the chest.

    One culture that seems to rather enjoy sleep paralysis are the Inuit people, Eskimos living in Canada’s subarctic region. According to one study, Inuits refer to sleep paralysis as uqumangirniq, an experience closely linked with the spiritual world. This is a good example of the Unusual Bodily Experiences category.

    What can I do about it?

    Although sleep paralysis is not strictly a sign of any health problems, Australian Government-funded site Health Direct says the condition could be related to hereditary factors, lack of sleep, migraines, anxiety disorders, sleep apnea or narcolepsy.

    In most cases, no treatment is required, but Health Direct suggests that getting enough regular sleep (6-8 hours) might fix it. Along with this, come the usual recommendations: less coffee and alcohol and more exercise and subsequent rest.

    If sleep paralysis does persist or seems like it may be linked to one of the above medical conditions, then see your General Practitioner. He or she will probably refer you to a neurologist. Strictly speaking, there is no “cure”, but at the very least sleep paralysis can be managed.

    About the author

    Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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