Ever Woken Up At Night Unable To Move? Here's Why That Happens

Harriet King September 26th 2017 Science
We've all had scary dreams before. Sometimes we wake up suddenly, covered in sweat, with our hearts beating at a million miles per hour. Some of us may even do a quick check to make sure there's nothing hiding under the bed. But what if we told you there's something even scarier than dreaming your scariest dreams? Imagine waking up unable to move, but still being able to see the terrors from your nightmares...
Scariest Condition In The World?
A nightmare doesn't even come close to the experience of sleep paralysis. Those who suffer from it wake up completely paralyzed, seeing things in front of them that aren't really there. All sufferers have described the deep fear and chest pressure they feel when they're in bed, paralyzed momentarily. It is estimated that 6 to 8 percent of the population has experienced sleep paralysis.
It's The Same Everywhere
No matter which country or culture the person is from, sufferers of sleep paralysis describe the exact same phenomena. Pressure on the chest, extreme fear, and the inability to move even one little bit. The main difference is that straight after a regular nightmare, we can get out of bed and shake it off, or cuddle our partners until we drift back to sleep again.
Trapped In Their Own Body
The worst part about this sleep condition is most likely the fact that after waking and realizing they can't move, sufferers can also feel or see another presence in the room. It is usually something traditionally "evil" such as a ghost, witch, or demon. Whatever it is, it's as though it has some straight from their nightmare into the real world.
How Do We Explain It?
Though sleep experts are now beginning to discover more and more about the condition, different cultures have previously used folklore to describe what happens when you wake up unable to move. It really highlights the sheer volume of sufferers there are when you think that a whole story was created to explain their strange disorder.
The Brazilian Story
In Brazil, they believed there was a link to how much you ate before bedtime. They tell the tale of a witch named Pisadiera, an old woman with a hunchback and creepily long fingernails. In the story, Pisadiera goes from house to house, jumping on the stomachs of anyone who fell asleep with a full belly of food.
Arctic Canadian Inuits Have A Theory, Too
While the Brazilian tale is a cute lesson not to fill up too much at dinner time, the Inuits have a far more terrifying story to share. They believe in the uqumangirniq, a being sent by a shaman that attacks people in their sleep. Sleep is considered a limbo state between the body and soul, so if the uqumangirniq is successful, the person will die from fright.
Japan's Story Is Just As Freaky
Not ones to be outdone in the scary stories department, the Japanese have their own terrifying version of what happens when you experience sleep paralysis. They speak of kanashibari - whose name roughly translates to "totally bound" - an evil and vengeful spirit, who is summoned by a spell. The aim of kanashibari is to suffocate its victim to death.
Alien Abductions
Throughout time, the ghoul in the room has been described as a man in a hat, a witch, a dog in chains, and an alien. In fact, those who dream up aliens are usually convinced that they have experienced an alien abduction when they wake up properly. To be honest, we'd probably start to believe it, too!
Some People Are Embarrassed
Sleep paralysis expert, Brian Sharples, who is a psychologist at Washington State University, says that it's hard to pull the correct numbers together. Many people suffer from sleep paralysis, but plenty of them are too embarrassed to admit that they experienced it. Especially if they believe they had a genuine supernatural experience while they were in bed.
Number Of Sufferers Is Unclear
Sharples explains why it's hard to break down the numbers: "It's fairly common, but very few people talk about it, and certainly not to their doctors. 'Doc, you know, I felt like there was a demonic dwarf sitting on my chest. They're embarrassed by it - they think they're going crazy," he explained. Would you tell your doctor about a demonic dwarf?
The Scientific Explanation
Fortunately, we don't have to guess if it was a witch who dislikes greed or a demon who wants to suffocate us. There is a pretty good scientific explanation available now - though it doesn't make the experience of sleep paralysis any less freaky. Doctors and sleep scientists say it has everything to do with our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
REM Interrupted
REM sleep has three stages, and the last one is when you're in the deepest part of your REM cycle. During this stage, your body is working really hard to repair muscle, tissues, and everything else, so if you wake up while this is happening, you'll naturally be a little disoriented. The catch is, that during REM, the brain puts our body into a state called atonia.
Atonia Causes The Paralyzed Feeling
Atonia is a relaxed state that literally paralyzes the limbs while you sleep in order for the brain to get all of its repair work done. If we didn't go into atonia, we'd be physically reacting to our dreams all night. Sleep paralysis occurs when you wake up from deep REM sleep while the body is still in atonia.
What About The Demons?
We can hear your questions already. Why is there a demon present, then? Basically, sleep paralysis is when you wake from REM in the atonia state, while also having a bad dream. Because the brain is very active during REM sleep, dreams are more vivid than usual and are easier to recall, which makes them seem real to the sufferer.
Sometimes A Demon Isn't Even Necessary
While a scary, out-of-this-world being certainly adds to the fear, people don't need to be dreaming up something weird in order to experience fear from sleep paralysis. "People freak out because they can't move, and it's this extreme anxiety which causes people to be very fearful of their surroundings," explains one sleep expert. "You just have to wait it out," he added.


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