Imagine you’re sleeping and, to your horror, find something smothering you in your sleep. You wish to move your head to get a better look at the perpetrator, move your hands to save yourself, and move your legs to run away to safety. But can you do all that? No. With your arms, legs, and whole body pinned to where you are sleeping, you encounter sleep demons, evil entities that crush you beneath their weight.
Does this situation sound terrifyingly familiar? If yes, you have also been a victim of the “sleep paralysis demon.” But what actually is it? Fortunately, the sleep demon is nothing more than a sleep hallucination, although the temporary paralysis may be quite real. This scary phenomenon occurs because your brain gets accidentally stuck in the transition from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to an awakened state, reenacting a scene straight out of the scariest horror movies ever made.
Sleep paralysis affects an estimated 8% of people in the world. But other studies show this terrifying phenomenon to be more common: affecting more than 30% of people at least once in their lifetime. Around 20% of people have a sleep paralysis episode at least occasionally, with more than 75% of individuals in this category experiencing a traumatizing hallucination where they see, feel, hear, or sense something in their bedroom.
Sleep paralysis demons are not contemporary: they have been a subject of discussion for ages. Let us delve into the spooky yet fascinating world of sleep demons and try to comprehend their causes with modern scientific explanations.
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Sleep Demons: How Do People Describe Them?
What actually is this “sleep demon” that leaves you unable to move or even scream? That depends upon who’s narrating the story. Sleep paralysis demons vary for different people but typically have two things in common: people are unable to speak or move and often feel pinned down to their bed with an eerie, almost supernatural force. Others also feel a feeling of their chest being crushed under the force.
But sleep demons aren’t new. We can find dozens of age-old references to these mystical creatures, which have had countless names for hundreds of years. Aligned with regional folklore, more than a hundred cultures have their own depiction of these sleep demons. For example, people in Newfoundland describe it as an “Old Hag” capable of putting it on you “like a charm.” Egyptians call this mysterious entity a “Jinn,” whereas the Chinese think it is “compression by a ghost.” For some, it may look like dead relatives or demons. Japanese folklore considers it a vengeful spirit prone to suffocating its enemies in their sleep, whereas the Canadian Inuit people attribute it to the spell of shamans.
Sleep paralysis seldom appears on stage as paranormal activity or even alien interventions, depending upon the cultural conventions. It also appears in art, such as in works by Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya and the 18th-century painting by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.
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What Causes Sleep-Related Hallucinations?
Scientists do not know the exact reason behind sleep-related hallucinations but hypothesize that they occur because of dreamlike sensations that occur on the edges of sleep as a person traverses his path into waking life.
The body cycles through two types of sleep when drifting to a slumber:
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep
- Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep
REM sleep is characterized by a high level of breathing, increased heart rate, and a heightened activity level in the brain. So detailed and deep dreams and nightmares typically occur in REM sleep. The body also enters a state of temporary paralysis in REM sleep, known as muscle atonia. But this paralysis is not something sinister; it is only induced to prevent sleepers from acting out their dreams and injuring themselves.
But sleep paralysis blurs the distinct lines between sleep and wakefulness. People may wake up and become aware of their surroundings, but their muscle atonia may not have ended just yet, preventing them from moving their bodies. This means that although they can see, hear, smell, think, and breathe while lying awake, they cannot move. But that is not all: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by sleep-related hallucinations that compel the experiencer to hear, feel, see, and sense any environmental changes around them. Such hallucinations can range from stationary and simple images to complicated multi-sensory intruder images, vestibular-motor hallucinations, or incubus.
Let us look into these kinds of hallucinations:
Incubus hallucinations make individuals feel like they are being choked or suffocated, with something pressing on their chest.
Intruder hallucinations are exactly what the name entails: experiencers describe sensing or seeing something threatening in the bedroom. This may be a menacing presence or a dangerous person and seldom occurs side by side with incubus hallucinations.
Such hallucinations involve imagined bodily sensations and may include feelings of bliss or out-of-body experiences.
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Why Do We Experience Sleep Paralysis Demons?
The exact cause behind the emergence of these sleep paralysis demons is unknown. But researchers have attempted to explain these terrifying happenings through the amalgamated role of mirror neurons, hormones, survival centers of the brain, and changes in breathing. Some of these factors are as follows:
Brain disturbances may contribute to the creation of abnormal images around the limes of human-like figures. These disturbances may also lead to visualization of phantom movements, sexual hallucinations, and the pain that some sleepers may feel in their limbs.
Hormones like serotonin attempt to suppress sleep REM sleep as a person wakes up, allowing an elevated awareness of the person’s surroundings. But in a sleep paralysis episode, serotonin is released “while” an individual is in REM sleep, inducing hallucinations and kickstarting the fear circuits in the brain.
Fear and Panic Cycles
Increasing awareness of being unable to move despite their alarming perceptions may elevate fear and trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response. This may, in turn, add to the frightening feelings of these hallucinations.
A person’s breathing typically gets shallower as the major muscles in the body get paralyzed due to REM sleep. Getting the awareness of this shallow breathing during a sleep paralysis episode may explain the feelings of pressure on the chest and suffocation, which people may, in turn, describe as a sleep-related hallucination.
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Although sleep demons may seem quite real, they are just a cruel trick of the brain. They can be frightening and traumatizing, but that does not necessarily mean you are being attacked or haunted or are losing control of reality. You can try to control or make these experiences less frightening by meditating, taking a deep breath, consulting a sleep specialist, and trying to make yourself understand that these feelings are merely a glitch in your sleep cycle. Since other sleep-related illnesses, such as sleep apnea, can also lead to sleep paralysis episodes, it is advisable to consult a sleep apnea specialist and get a sleep apnea test or a sleep study. If you do not want to leave the comfort of your home, you can avail of SleepRx’s facilities and sit for an at-home sleep study or get an online sleep apnea test. Head over to SleepRx to learn about sleep study costs and more facilities!