Demystifying sleep paralysis

2018-10-04 06:02

SLEEP paralysis is a phenomenon that affects many people from all ages, races, and cultural backgrounds all over the world, although different cultural groups have offered various interpretations for it.

According to neuropsychologist Dr. Sharon Truter, scientifically, sleep paralysis is nothing more than a natural bodily response to a particular state of sleep.

“Our bodies are usually paralysed during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is probably necessary so that one does not respond physically to what one is dreaming about in that time. This paralysis is supposed to end once a person awakes, but this is not always the case and occasionally a person becomes fully awake, but is left with the paralysis of the head, limbs and trunk. Along with the paralysis, persons typically experience respiratory difficulties and anxiety. This transient experience is fairly common and is called sleep paralysis,” said Truter.

Truter says this paralysis, as is the case with many sleeping disorders, is aggravated by stress and anxiety and, in turn, is also alleviated by the reduction of stress levels.

Van Deventer echoes these sentiments in his book Students’ A to Z of Psychology, Second Edition (2013).

“Personal distress refers to the subjective feelings of anxiety, depression or any other unpleasant emotions. This is one of the main causes of psychological disorders. Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but being unable to move, it occurs when a person is in between the phases of wakefulness and sleep,” writes Deventer.

He says the term “sleep paralysis” does not even come close in describing what’s really taking place with victims. Typically, whenever you hear the term sleep paralysis, it’s usually something to do with it being a phenomenon. And usually modern scientists say it has something to do with either falling asleep or a kind of awakening and they temporally experience an inability to move or speak or react.

“We spend most of our time in waking consciousness, which is a state of clear, organised alertness however states of consciousness can change depending on the amount of stress that is felt by the brain. The brain actively maintains sleep by brainwaves, when the wave pattern is desynchronised the conscious state falls between wakefulness and sleep,” says Deventer in his book.

In this phase, muscle tone is very low and the sleeper is unable to move although one is aware of the surroundings. Rapid eye movement, irregular heart rate and sweating profusely are symptoms of the sleep disorder and those that experience sleep paralysis often feel terrified during the experience — an understandable reaction from not having voluntary control over one’s movements, he explains.

There are however treatments for sleep paralysis. These include the implementation of a sleep schedule, intensive therapeutic counselling, and anti-depressants.

South African cultures and religions have, however, also offered their own interpretations for sleep paralysis, an example being the Christian perspective of “Paranormal Romance”.

A psychiatry student who comes from a Christian background, Sasha Noel, said he has experienced what he believes to be a demonic encounter during sleep paralysis.

“Throughout the Bible there is plenty of evidence that demons can take on some type of physical form and function to take advantage of human beings. It is also documented in some of the writings of ancient Christians & Jews such as Justin Martyr, Josephus, Philo & many more. After the terrifying experience, the victim is in a completely helpless state where they search for any form of help or ideas of cures. I have been a victim”, said Noel.


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