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REM Sleep and Sleep Paralysis

I'm Sam. I enjoy writing about sleep and mental health-related topics as well as ways to prevent stress and to relax.


Sleep Paralysis is a phenomena during a sleep cycle in which the individual has a sense of being awake or conscious but is unable to move. While sleeping, a person passes through or transitions through the cycles of sleep. During these transitions some may experience a moment somewhere between wakefulness and sleep that allows for the mind to be active and aware while the body is still frozen in slumber. This is what is referred to as sleep paralysis or SP.

REM sleep and Sleep Paralysis

During one of these cycles of sleep referred to as REM sleep, dream activity begins and the muscles of the body become immobile. Our bodies are designed to turn off our muscles because this ensures that we do not act out our dreams, which can ultimately be dangerous for ourselves or others.

For some this may be the extent of the experience. For others however there are other symptoms that manifest where the experience is elevated to sensing evil spirits, feelings of being choked or crushed, visions and even hearing voices. These have been described as being highly intense and feeling entirely real.

Are there different types of Sleep Paralysis and when can they occur?

There are two moments in which a person may experience sleep paralysis. The first is upon falling asleep and the second is when a person is fully awake. If it occurs when you are falling asleep, or are asleep, it is referred to as hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. On the other hand if you present these symptoms when you are awake it is called hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.

During an occurrence of Hypnagogic sleep paralysis the body begins to relax as it would during the beginning of any sleep cycle, only, in some instances you may become aware that you are in fact falling asleep. Though you are aware consciously of this fact, the physical body is still and engaged with the sleep cycle. At this point though you are aware you will not be able to speak or to move.

In addition there are two stages of sleep that we experience. As we sleep our bodies begin cycles that alternate non-rapid eye movement or NREM and rapid eye movement or REM throughout the night of sleep. It is during this second stage of a sleep cycle, REM, that sleep paralysis can occur; this is the portion of the cycle where you dream and the body is truly at rest. At this point your brain shuts off the muscles of the body and if you become consciously aware at this stage, you will notice that you cannot speak or move the body.

Did you know that about 4 in 10 people have experienced sleep paralysis in their lifetime? Many of which had an occurrence or multiple occurrences in their teens, however a person can experience SP at any age. In fact SP is thought to run in families, so if your parents or grandparents have experienced it, you have a greater chance of having SP yourself.

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Causes of Sleep Paralysis

There are many factors that can contribute to Sleep Paralysis; some things that are within our personal control and some that may be caused by more serious conditions like sleep disorders or mental conditions.

Though most of us are able to drift seamlessly from a waking state to falling into a restful NREM slumber, that is then followed by the dreamy world of REM sleep, and some have difficulty. That is when a normal every day sleep cycle can take a turn into something unpleasant and a lot less restful. Some of the most common sleep paralysis causes that have been uncovered are as follows.

  • Not getting an ample amount of sleep
  • Changes in your sleep schedule
  • Sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea
  • Sleep positions (back sleepers)
  • Substance or drug abuse
  • Prescription medications (like those used to treat ADHD)
  • Stress
  • Passed through generations (Hereditary)
  • Disruption of regular sleep cycle
  • Mental Disorders such as bipolar disorder
  • Mental Illness or diseases affecting the brain (such as neurodegenerative disease)

Culture and History of Sleep Paralysis

There was a time when less was known about sleep paralysis and though sleep paralysis has been documented for at least 300 years, different cultures had their own view of what it was. For instance in 1692 evidence that we now understand to be sleep paralysis was used to place people on trial for witchcraft. The victims of this so called witchcraft entered into testimony occurrences that read more like an experience of SP than being coerced by witchery.

In fact, although it may seem absurd to us today that people were convicted of crimes when what was described can now be explained as sleep paralysis. What was reason to have people burned at the stake has a simple explanation. Research shows that many claims of alien abduction also shares very similar descriptions to SP.

In 1993 there was a study conducted by Spanos, and a paper written by Holden & French that shows that 60% of UFO experiences are related to sleep. In other words, the experiences of those who claim to be abducted by aliens and those who were victims of witches have proven that their descriptions of their individual occurrence were in alignment with or resemble sleep paralysis.

There are various cultural differences in how sleep paralysis has been explained over the years. However, as we learn more about the causes we can begin to monitor and adjust our lifestyles to create better opportunities for better rest or seek medical help. Medical professionals may give adjustments to medication or diagnose disorders that may be closely related to the experience of SP’s.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Sam Shepards

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