If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis or even heard a story about someone who has, it might be easy to believe that sleep paralysis is a dangerous occurrence. For those who experience it, it can undoubtedly be a terrifying and undesirable state. On the other hand, some of those who understand sleep paralysis sometimes try to induce it because they are interested in lucid dreaming or want to have an “out-of-body” experience.
So what’s the deal with sleep paralysis? Is it dangerous? There are even wild rumors of sleep paralysis deaths. Can sleep paralysis cause death? We’ll take a closer look at the phenomenon to find out how true these claims are. First, we will define sleep paralysis and examine its causes.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is an often disturbing sleep disorder. Basically, your mind and body play tricks on you so that you consciously experience (while asleep) the inability to move. This fear of paralysis is usually combined with (and worsened by) visions of demons, aliens, ghosts, or other dark and menacing entities. Often, the sleeper gets the sensation that this entity is putting pressure on the sleeper’s chest, increasing the sense of danger. The experience can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes—but to the dreamer, it can feel quite a bit longer.
Doesn’t sound normal, does it? Well, surprisingly, it is….sort of.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Believe it or not, the onset of sleep paralysis happens to all of us every night before we enter REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. The process is called REM atonia, and it is a natural process that cuts off the electrical signals between your brain and your muscles so that your body doesn’t act out your dreams. This lack of muscle tension is essential and completely safe. Imagine if you acted out all of your dreams! Normally, you have no idea this is happening because you are already asleep. As soon as you do wake up, your sleep paralysis is turned off, and you go about your day as usual.
The sensation we know as sleep paralysis happens when the sleeping person becomes conscious of the REM atonia, and thus they feel the sensation of their muscles being either partially or completely paralyzed. Part of your mind is awake (so that the sleeper often really believes they are awake, accentuating the fear), but since your body is still asleep, a part of your brain still believes you are in dreamland. Thus, your body remains paralyzed and your mind continues to conjure hallucinations (dreams). It is actually the fear of paralysis that leads to the menacing hallucinations. Your brain creates these hallucinations in response to your terror.
Can You Die from Sleep Paralysis? Is Sleep Paralysis Dangerous?
No. In short, sleep paralysis is NOT dangerous, although it can be disruptive to your sleep. Those who have long episodes of sleep paralysis and try to fight it may even experience sore muscles the next day from trying to break free of the paralysis. That’s the most dangerous that it gets. Those who don’t know the cause of sleep paralysis may become terrified of falling asleep and their quality of sleep could greatly suffer. If an informed person consciously experiences sleep paralysis, they should remain calm and not fight it. The mind will likely soon completely re-enter the sleeping state.
So where did all these rumors about the dangers of sleep paralysis come from? Well, as sleep paralysis is a natural human phenomenon, it’s been around for years, maybe even millennia. Most likely, the rumors of death by sleep paralysis were passed down through folklore from various cultures around the world. The hallucinations experienced are usually directly correlated to the culture’s popular folklore images. For example, only when flying saucers became popular in the United States did Americans start reporting vivid alien abductions during sleep paralysis.
So, Should You Be Worried About Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is nothing you should be scared of. However, it can be quite terrifying when your half-asleep mind convinces you that the hallucinations are real. If sleep paralysis is a problem for you, fear not! Plenty of doctors and psychologists can offer ways to lessen the likelihood of experiencing the phenomenon at all. There are also several known ways to stop sleep paralysis while you are experiencing it, many of which are available on the internet. However, don’t be fooled by websites that claim sleep paralysis is the result of anything other than a completely natural mind-body function.