OCT 19, 2016 6:35 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 26, 2022
Neuroscience
Poor Eyesight in Older Individuals Linked to Dementia
JUN 26, 2022
Poor Eyesight in Older Individuals Linked to Dementia
Older adults with untreated sight conditions may be at an increased risk of dementia. The corresponding study was publis ...
JUL 20, 2022
Cardiology
Light Exposure During Sleep Linked to Obesity, Hypertension in Older Adults
JUL 20, 2022
Light Exposure During Sleep Linked to Obesity, Hypertension in Older Adults
Keeping your bedroom dark at night could have a major impact on your health.
JUL 21, 2022
Immunology
For the First Time, Microscopy Catches Antibodies Attacking a Receptor
JUL 21, 2022
For the First Time, Microscopy Catches Antibodies Attacking a Receptor
Using cryo-electron microscopy, researchers captured images of a molecule called an autoantibody as it attached to a rec ...
AUG 03, 2022
Clinical & Molecular DX
Monkeypox Updates: Transmission, Symptoms, and Treatment
AUG 03, 2022
Monkeypox Updates: Transmission, Symptoms, and Treatment
With the 2020 Covid lockdowns still fresh in our minds, the recent outbreak of monkeypox in the United States has many p ...
AUG 07, 2022
Health & Medicine
Antibiotic Resistance Genes of Mothers and Neonates in Low and Middle Income Countries
AUG 07, 2022
Antibiotic Resistance Genes of Mothers and Neonates in Low and Middle Income Countries
A team of international researchers examined the presence of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) in the gut microbiota of ...
AUG 10, 2022
Infographics
Arachnophobia: World's Deadliest Spiders
AUG 10, 2022
Arachnophobia: World's Deadliest Spiders
Spiders are one of nature's most incredible creatures, and there are millions of spider enthusiasts worldwide.
Loading Comments...