There is a group of sleep conditions known as parasomnias. One of the most terrifying is sleep paralysis. In the past, people suffering from it were said to be the victim of a succubus or incubus. These days it could explain some of the reports of alien abduction.
These sleep events are usually so terrifying that they would prompt a person to run out of the room they were sleeping in, except of course that they can’t!
So what is sleep paralysis?
It kind of does what it says on the tin. Your body is paralysed. It is a phenomenon that occurs when waking during REM sleep. That is a deep sleep, where your eyes twitch a lot, it stands for Rapid Eye movement.
This really shouldn’t actually happen. You see a lot of our body’s functions switch off during this stage of sleep. If they didn’t we would physically act out the things that were happening in our dreams. (Which could be a bit of a nightmare, pardon the pun.) The paralysis occurs when you awake during this period but your body doesn’t catch up. So your eyes are open but you are unable to actually move. Sometimes this lasts but a few seconds but can last up to a few minutes. As you can imagine the ordeal can be pretty terrifying.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon either. As many as 8 percent of people have experienced sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. The exact cause of the condition isn’t known but researchers believe it may be a “glitch” of sorts in the way that REM reacts when it overlaps with less intense stages of sleep.
Apparently, they believe that the issue may lie somewhere in our genetic code. This suggests that some people might have a natural predisposition to the problem. Apparently, those who suffer from other sleep issues are also more prone.
So just what exactly makes the condition so terrifying?
I mean obviously feeling paralysed isn’t going to be very nice. But what are the other factors that make this phenomenon so chilling? Part of the reason is to do with ancient instincts. Whilst humans live in a very different world to the one which our ancestors inhabited, as a species we have not yet evolved to be rid of ancient reflexes encoded into our DNA.
What this means is that we have some sets of passive reflexes that we no longer require. One such set is the code that makes us hyper-vigilant during an episode of sleep paralysis.
Our body goes into “defence mode” which means rapid blood pressure and breathing etc. All this just adds to the sense of terror. Whilst back when we lived in caves these things were essential to protect us from predators, these days they are useless.
There is a theory that says that the brain can misinterpret things in its heightened state, making incorrect assumptions in order to be cautious. So that dressing gown hanging up on the back of the door suddenly becomes a man in a hooded top. Once again these reactions would have been completely sensible in prehistoric days but in the modern era and in this context are a bit of a menace.
Another symptom associated with the phenomena is difficulty breathing. Of course, your brain interprets this in the worst way possible. This just adds to the sense of terror that a person experiences.
This idea helps to explain why people claim to see demons and the like when they experience these phenomena. Of course, these aren’t really there. But our brain can’t understand what is going on and sort of “fills in the blanks” for us.