I have the same experience over and over again at night. I awake, but I cannot move. I can see the room and I know I should be able to get up out of my bed, but I am completely paralyzed. And, without missing a beat, something is in the room with me and it is coming towards me. It is never anything pleasant like a unicorn or rainbows with pots of gold. No – it is almost always a horror-invoking being like a giant spider or a menacing creature intent on doing me harm.
I close my eyes and tell myself that this is sleep paralysis and what I am seeing is not real. And I tell myself that my body’s inability to move will soon pass. I repeat this almost like a mantra until I can actually move and my hallucinations evaporate into the room.
I am part of the less than 8% of the population which experiences sleep paralysis. Luckily, I understand what is happening to my body and brain and I don’t fear it. Many people throughout history and cultures have been terrorized by the experience and have created superstitious beliefs to explain such a frightening phenomenon. When I was a child, I used to think ghosts and aliens were coming into my room and causing these incidents. It wasn’t until I was older and diagnosed with sleep paralysis that I understood there was a biological basis for my experience.
Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder caused by areas of the brainstem not operating properly upon waking. During REM (dream state sleep), the brain paralyzes the body so that you do not physically act out dreams. Dreaming of running through a field may be liberating, but actually getting up and running in your bedroom while dreaming is a recipe for injury. Upon awaking, the brainstem will allow the muscles to move again and the person will become conscious. For people with sleep paralysis, the brainstem does not realize we are awake, so our bodies continue to be paralyzed and dream in a half-awake/half-asleep state.
Sleep paralysis is only one of many sleep disorders that people suffer from. Some of the more common sleep disorders include:
- Insomnia: inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
- Sleep Apnea: disrupted breathing while sleeping which causes frequent awakenings that the person does not remember
- Narcolepsy: excessive, uncontrollable daytime sleepiness that causes the patient to fall asleep in the middle of an activity
- Sleepwalking: walking or engaging in physical activity while asleep
Naturally, with so many people experiencing sleep disorders, many scientists and doctors study the area of sleep medicine. This subspecialty of medicine grew reapidly in the 20th century as scientists learned more about the sleep/wake cycle and the brain functions that control the process. The late 20th century saw the introduction of sleep labs and observation clinics to help diagnose and treat these sleep disturbances.
If you would like to learn more about sleep disorders and sleep medicine, the Touro College Libraries have the following resources available for you to explore:
- ABCs of Sleep Medicine by Paul Reading
- Atlas of Sleep and Sleep Medicine edited by Lois E. Krahn, Timothy I. Morgenthaler, and Michael H. Silber
- Oxford Case Histories in Sleep Medicine by Himender Makkar, Matthew Walker, Hugh Selsick, Bhik Kotecha, and Ama Johal
This post was contributed by Annette Carr, Librarian at the School of Health Sciences at Bay Shore
American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). (2020). Retrieved from https://aasm.org/
Felson, S. (2018). Sleep paralysis. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-paralysis
Lanese, N. (2019). Sleep paralysis: Causes, symptoms & treatment. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/50876-sleep-paralysis.html
Sleep disorders. (2020). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/sleepdisorders.html