Sleep Paralysis, Not From the Devil But Can Be Frightening
About 8 percent of the population experiences sleep paralysis, a condition which, in past centuries, was often believed to be caused by witches or the devil. A new review of the research from experts at Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania reveals that sleep paralysis is more prevalent among psychiatric patients and students, and that some individuals who experience sleep paralysis avoid sleeping because their condition is so disturbing.
Sleep paralysis can be distressing or pleasant
Sleep paralysis is a condition in which you feel like you are awake, but you are unable to move. Episodes occur in the stages between wakefulness and sleep and can last just a few seconds or up to several minutes.
Some individuals can see and hear things (hallucinations), but they are not able to respond physically to them. Sleep paralysis may occur only a few times during a person’s life, or as often as every night.
To discovery who is likely to experience sleep paralysis, Brian A. Sharpless, clinical assistant professor of psychology and assistant director of the psychological clinic at Penn State, evaluated 35 published studies that included a total of 36,533 individuals. About 20% of people reported having at least one episode of sleep paralysis, while some said they had it every night.
When Sharpless looked at different groups, he found sleep paralysis was more common among nonwhites, and that nearly 35% of people with panic disorder, nearly 32% of psychiatric patients, and 28% of students reported having episodes. The three main types of hallucinations are out-of-body experiences or levitation, presence of an intruder, and pressure on the chest that can be accompanied by sexual or physical attack.
Although sleep paralysis is not a dangerous health problem, it can significantly disrupt people’s quality and quantity of sleep, leaving them sleep deprived. Individuals who have hallucinations as part of the condition may also be frightened and experience undue stress, especially if they feel as though they are being attacked, choked, or kidnapped. Sleep paralysis is not always a scary experience, however, as some people report it as being pleasant.
The causes of sleep paralysis are not known, although experts have noted some possible factors. They include a lack of sleep, fluctuating sleep schedules, sleeping on the back, use of certain medications, and the presence of other sleep problems such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps.
Sharpless, who was joined in his research by Jacques P. Barber, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, said “I want to better understand how sleep paralysis affects people, as opposed to simply knowing that they experience it.” He plans to explore associations between sleep paralysis and post-traumatic stress disorder in the future.
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