It's a horrible feeling: you wake up in the middle of the night and you're fully aware of your surroundings, but you can't move. you are paralyzed And as the seconds go by, you get more and more scared until you fall asleep or slowly regain movement.
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Or perhaps you wake up to find a presence in the room, something designed to harm or threaten you, filling you with terror before falling back to sleep.
These cases, sleep paralysis and sleep hallucinations (also known as "sleep demons"), can be incredibly scary things to experience. And yet, apart from scaring, they are harmless. They are simply the results of an interrupted dream.
Still, that doesn't help calm the fear when it happens. We talked to a specialist in sleep disorders.Dra. Alicia Roth, about what causes these conditions and what you should know if you ever have them.
What is sleep paralysis?
The first component of this is sleep paralysis, a condition in which a person wakes up but is temporarily unable to move. When this happens, it can seem downright scary, but Dr. Roth assures us that it's a completely benign condition.
“This happens when there is a malfunction between REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and wakefulness,” says Dr. Roth. These facts, he says, affect around 10% of the population.
Not to be confused with deep sleep, REM sleep is a point in the sleep cycle when the brain is highly active. So active, Dr. Roth says, "If we looked at your brain activity on a polysomnogram (PSG) during REM sleep, it would look a lot like when you're awake."
“Many different things go through your mind during REM sleep, some of which you remember as dreams,” he continues. "And one of the ways that our bodies protect us during this period of REM sleep is by paralyzing us from acting on these things during sleep."
For those who suffer from sleep paralysis, the problem arises when there is an interruption in this transition between REM sleep and wakefulness. "You're waking up consciously, but the protective REM sleep paralysis hasn't fully abated yet," explains Dr. Roth.
For this reason, most people who suffer from sleep paralysis do so in the morning. But, Dr. Roth points out, you can try it at any time.
So sleep hell? Actually?
Or something like them, something terrifying.
Just as sleep paralysis occurs when there is a disruption in your sleep cycle, it is also possible that your sleep cycle is disrupted in such a way that you experience vivid dream-like hallucinations or that your dream-state brain interprets something real as something real. completely different. different. different. For example, you might mistake your cat sleeping at the foot of your bed for some kind of elf.
Although many experience them upon waking (called hypnopompic hallucinations), it is possible to experience them during the act of falling asleep (hypnagogic hallucinations). "Again, REM sleep is a very active period," notes Dr. Roth, "and your brain is waking up that sleep state."
"However, these hallucinations are not dreams," he clarifies. "You're conscious, but it's another overlap between sleep and wakefulness."
They're not necessarily always visual, either, he adds. “Most people experience them visually, but they can be tactile, kinetic, olfactory, or auditory.”
These hallucinations don't necessarily manifest as demons, says Dr. Roth. Sometimes it can be a visual cue, as mentioned above, or it can be something else. “Some people describe it as scary or disturbing, knowing there is something in the room with them. It's more like a kinetic hallucination,” he says.
As for the origin of the common reference to these hallucinations as "demons," Dr. Roth says it has more to do with the history of each culture and the ways these events have been interpreted for (many, many) years.
“Going back even to what we think of as ancient times, every culture has a version of this,” she says. "Every one of them has this version of the idea of a terrifying entity sitting on their chest, something terrifying."
These experiences filter, over time, through these cultural lenses, as well as through each person's individual experiences. "Culture is very important when it comes to how each person perceives these hallucinations," she adds.
Do sleep paralysis and dream hallucinations occur together?
Although sleep paralysis and sleep hallucinations are two different events that occur separately, they can occur together. “Many people who report hallucinations say they also have sleep paralysis,” says Dr. Roth. "It's hard to predict when or why this happens."
It's certainly a recipe for a truly terrifying experience, a literal nightmare. You feel trapped and at the mercy of any scary monster that wants to harm you. But as horrible as it seems at the time, again, you're not in danger of hurting yourself, says Dr. Roth.
What leads to these terrifying experiences?
Although we know the biological causes of these terrible events, but what causes these interruptions in sleep? According to the doctor. Roth, there are a few factors that fuel these night terrors.
A neurological disorder that can affect the brain's control over sleep and wakefulness,narcolepsyIt can include periods of excessive daytime sleepiness and even instances where a person has no control over falling asleep, even in the middle of the day or activity.
Sleep paralysis can often be a symptom of narcolepsy, says Dr. Roth. "When people are diagnosed with narcolepsy, they should expect to have these episodes of paralysis."
Stress and other factors may not be a direct cause of these events, but, Dr. Roth says, they can certainly play a role in disrupting your sleep and making you more susceptible to these experiences.
“When I work with patients, many of them experience other sleep problems, such as insomnia or not sleeping well in general,” he says. "They're stressed or anxious about other things going on in their life and it gets in the way."
What can I do with these experiences?
Once again, Dr. Roth reminds us that these facts are not indications of something more serious. “Right now, you can't process it properly,” she says. "But that doesn't necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder or that some degenerative disease process is going on."
She notes the recent increase in nightmares andstressful dreamsmilinks them to the current COVID-19 pandemic. “Think about what we are all going through. Even if you're not a frontline worker, even if you're not sick, your life is still upside down."
If you have sleep paralysis and hallucinations, he says you need to assess what major changes are taking place in your life. "Is there something you're not dealing with well but it's showing up in your sleep?" she asks.
Making sure you get enough sleep, enough rest, and healthy sleep habits are other things to consider.
"If you have these hypnagogic hallucinations during the transition from wakefulness to sleep, consider what you consume before bed," he says. “You have to turn off the news at 9 pm. and you need to get away from social media for a certain period of time.
While it may seem like nothing is wrong at the time, he says, what you prepare your brain for before you fall asleep can have a dramatic impact on how you actually sleep and whether there are any interruptions.
The less anxious you are, the better your chances of getting through the night with uninterrupted sleep.