The science behind sleep paralysis

During an episode of sleep paralysis, one may hallucinate (hear, feel or see things that are not there), which often results in fear. (@WildInWoods/Flickr Creative Commons)

During an episode of sleep paralysis, one may hallucinate (hear, feel or see things that are not there), which often results in fear. (@WildInWoods/Flickr Creative Commons)

If any of you have experienced the horrifying sensation that is sleep paralysis, you’re not alone. Sleep paralysis is defined as “during awakening or falling asleep, a person is aware but unable to move or speak. During an episode, one may hallucinate (hear, feel or see things that are not there), which often results in fear.”

Many people say it often occurs when they are sleeping in a certain position, for example, on their back. However, your sleeping position is not the only reason why you have these night terrors.

Researchers say that sleep paralysis occurs in four out of every 10 people and can be hereditary. It usually begins during the teenage years and can keep occurring throughout adulthood. Other factors that may cause this are stress, lack of sleep, change in sleep schedule, leg cramps or certain medications. It may feel like the end of the world when it’s happening, but it’s rather comforting to know that sleep paralysis could be due to common emotions and factors.

Sleep paralysis isn’t something that needs to be treated, as it’s a somewhat rare occurrence for most people. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about it has experienced sleep paralysis. When it does occur, it basically means that our body is not going through the stages of sleep as smoothly as it should be. As I said above, this could be due to a number of personal factors. I’ve discussed the importance of sleep and maintaining a good sleep schedule or routine before, but the risk of sleep paralysis can make it seem even more important.

To be more in tune with when or how this might happen, know that sleep paralysis only occurs at one of two possible times. If it happens while you’re falling asleep, it’s called hypnagogic or pre-dormital sleep paralysis. If it happens while you’re in the process of waking up, it’s called hypnopompic or post-dormital sleep paralysis. Either way, it sends shock into our bodies and produces fear. Our brains aren’t usually completely ready to process things like that during sleep or just after waking up, so it is often frightening.

Since sleep paralysis is not a legitimate or serious condition, there aren’t many preventative methods, other than following a good sleep routine. Meditation and ensuring that the body is relaxed when going to bed is also a good prevention technique.


Tessa Pawlik is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at tessa.pawlik@uconn.edu.