OCT 19, 2016 06:35 AM PDT

Diagnosed: When You're Conscious but Paralyzed in Nightmares

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
In Brazil, it’s known as “Pisadeira,” a creature that lurks on rooftops at night, and then bears down on unsuspecting people while they sleep. In Spain, sufferers call it “Pesanta,” a name for a black animal that also preys on sleeping people. In some Asian cultures, it’s a spirit that weighs down the slumberer.
 
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781) | Image: wikimedia.org
These rich and imaginative folk stories capture a very real and frightening phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. This condition occurs when a person is caught between the dream state and the wakefulness state – the body is in total paralysis mode while the person is conscious and dreaming.
 
"When people have a nightmare, they sleep, have a dream and then wake up. When they're experiencing sleep paralysis, they may have a dream when they are already awake," explained Steven Bender, director of Texas A&M University's Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine.
 
It doesn’t sound so bad until we remember that the body is still completely immobilized because the brain thinks we’re still asleep. This natural inhibition of motor neurons to prevent a person from acting out their dream becomes the factor that makes sleep paralysis so frightening.
 
"People who experience sleep paralysis can have vivid hallucinations because they are dreaming," said Bender. "People have felt like they're levitating or that someone is in their bedroom or a variety of other strange experiences, like alien abductions."
 

Indeed, the experience is surreal. For me, it happens most often when I can’t consciously decide to wake up from a nap or sleep just a little longer. If I linger too long between these states, the weight on the chest sets in, slowly but oppressively. At this point, I’ll want to wake up, but my eyelids feel weighed down with lead bricks. Then comes the wakeful nightmares of intruders in the room – sometimes climbing in the bed, sometimes hovering on top, always dark, featureless, and full of menace. But I can’t even move to scream or lift a finger. It’s like being trapped in a prison of my own nightmare.
 
The variety of cultures in which sleep paralysis is known indicates that this condition is much more common than we imagined. It’s estimated that the disorder affects as much as 25 percent of the population. For some, it may be a singular terror-inducing experience. For others, like myself, the unwanted episodes has happened a few too many times.
 
Luckily, the episodes only last a few minutes in real time. Furthermore, researchers say there are ways to minimize the risk of such experience, one of which is to have a regularly schedule sleep/wake cycle. Of note, reducing the snoozing may be the most effective way to curb my sleep paralysis.

Additional sources: Live Science, UPI, Chicago CBS news
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
JUN 19, 2018
Clinical & Molecular DX
JUN 19, 2018
Three-Dimensional Diagnosis of Osteoarthritis
There is a new way to diagnose arthritis and watch its progression slowly over time to determine the best route of treatment. From the University of Cambri...
JUN 20, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
JUN 20, 2018
The Cause of a Rare Neurological Disease is Identified
In a recent study, scientists sequenced the genome to find the mutation behind a disorder that causes blindness and paralysis....
JUN 23, 2018
Clinical & Molecular DX
JUN 23, 2018
Algorithm-Based Blood Test Diagnoses Autism
As a developmental disorder, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be diagnosed as early as 18 to 24 months of age, but often the diagnosis does not come unt...
JUL 07, 2018
Cardiology
JUL 07, 2018
Hybrid Imaging of the Heart Predicts Heart Attack Risk
The combination of two different types of imaging seems to be the most accurate way to predict heart attacks. Based on studies from the University Hospital...
JUL 20, 2018
Chemistry & Physics
JUL 20, 2018
X-ray Images to Get Colors
In the near future, the X-ray images from your doctor's office will no longer be just black and white, at least that's what MARS Bioimaging Ltd, an...
NOV 13, 2018
Drug Discovery
NOV 13, 2018
Clinical Trial Drug For a Rare Neurodegenrative Disease Proven Unsuccessful
Niemann-Pick type C (NPC) is a rare and fatal neurodegenerative disease. Symptoms of the condition include loss of balance, difficulty swallowing, seizures...
Loading Comments...