What is sleep paralysis?


Has it ever happened to you, during your sleep, to find yourself suddenly awake, as if you were paralyzed? Those who have experienced this sensation do not forget it so easily.
Science has given it a name: sleep paralysis, also called hypnagogic paralysis, a disorder that belongs to the category of “parasomnia”.

What is sleep paralysis?

It is a “malfunction” that can occur when we sleep. In the so-called REM sleep phase, the one in which vivid dreams mainly occur, our eyes move, but the body is immobile, with the muscles “paralyzed” by a physiological mechanism. Sometimes it happens that the awakening does not exactly coincide with the phase in which the muscles have regained their tone.

This is why we find ourselves conscious, but unable to move.

In some cases, the combination of oneiric mental activity and the waking state causes hallucinations, almost always felt as fearful visions or sensations. In fact, terror is a central element of this experience, probably caused by a hyper-activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the mechanisms of anxiety and fear.

According to a recent study, 40% of people experience sleep paralysis at least once in their life, although most refer to it as a “bad dream”. Often the victims, especially if they do not know what it is about, report a great anguish that also affects daily life.

What are the causes of sleep paralysis? Who suffers from this disorder?

The most common causes of sleep paralysis are lack of rest, a state of stress and irregular sleep patterns. Students and people who are anxious, depressed or suffering from panic attacks are more prone to this disorder.

How to best manage these moments?

The treatment, called Meditation-Relaxation or MR therapy, is based on research by the scholar, conducted in several countries.

MR therapy is based on four stages during sleep paralysis:

  • Reassess the significance of the attack: The individual must close their eyes, avoid fidgeting, and reassess the significance of the attack as benign.
  • Psychological and emotional detachment: the sleeper must remember that a catastrophication of the event (for example, fear or distress) could worsen, and eventually, prolong the attack.
  • Inner meditation focused on attention to an object to which a positive emotion is connected.
  • Muscle relaxation.

To date, the experiments conducted seem to support the effectiveness of this treatment.

Some curiosities about sleep paralysis …

Popular culture has come up with numerous explanations for this phenomenon, which is often attributed to magical or demonic entities, such as the Jinn in Egypt or the Kanashibari demon in Japan. Over time, many legends related to hypnagogic paralysis
have also arisen. One of these, present in Abruzzo and Marche folklore, tells that, to defend against these phenomena, it would be necessary to sleep on the back, put a broom next to the bed or arrange a sandbag, which would thus distract the witch, forcing her to count everyone the grains.

In addition to popular beliefs, which differ from region to region, some pseudoscientific theories have also spread in more recent times.


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