Updated August 25, 2020Recurrent isolated sleep paralysis affects 8 percent of the general population. While it sounds like a small number, it’s equivalent to around 602 million people. Historically, people who experience sleep paralysis, or sleep atonia, report claims of being temporarily paralyzed, unable to speak, having difficulty breathing, feeling a “presence” in the room, and seeing and hearing hallucinations.While these experiences aren’t real, they don’t indicate psychotic breaks; it’s a natural phenomenon that happens to people under stress who lack quality sleep.This article will discuss, briefly, what sleep paralysis is and how to prevent episodes. We will also explore the history of sleep paralysis and its impacts on world cultures.What is Sleep Paralysis?Sleep paralysis, or sleep atonia, is a condition where you wake up immobile and have difficulty breathing. Before the body enters the last stage of sleep—REM (rapid eye movement)—the body decreases its temperature. Neuron communication in the brainstem becomes limited, which immobilizes the body, preventing you from acting out your dreams, and slows your breathing.When you have disrupted sleep or experience an abnormal sleep cycle, you can become conscious while your body is coming out of or entering REM sleep. Becoming conscious while the body is paralyzed can cause the real world and dreams to overlap, causing the hypnopompic (when waking up) and hypnagogic (when transitioning from NREM into REM sleep) hallucinations, including threatening sounds, smells, and textures.Other risk factors from sleep disruptions include sleep deprivation, stress, fatigue, past traumas, panic disorders, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, and narcolepsy.You can prevent episodes of sleep paralysis by improving your sleep hygiene: get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, follow a regular sleep schedule, drink tea or take a warm bath before bed, and relax one or two hours before bedtime.Some people state they focus on moving smaller muscles, such as the toes or fingers, to come out of sleep atonia episodes quicker.A History of Sleep ParalysisIncidences of sleep paralysis are recorded in writing and medical texts throughout history with varying types of interpretation and assumptions around causes.Around 400 BCE, the Chinese wrote about strange experiences while dreaming. This Chinese text includes the first detailed experiences recorded.In 1664, Dutch physician Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck wrote a collection of case histories called Of the Night-Mare describing nightly experiences of a 50-year-old woman with hypnagogic hallucinations. Diemerbroeck also found sleep paralysis occurred more frequently in back sleeping positions. This collection of texts is the first detailed record of sleep paralysis with hypnagogic hallucinations.In 1876, sleep paralysis was termed “night palsy” by Silas Weir Mitchell, MD. Over 150 years later, in 1928, the term sleep paralysis was used for the first time in medical literature by Neurologist A.S.K. Wilson.In 1977, 100 healthy people died in their sleep throughout Southeast Asian communities (mostly Laotian Hmong men) from unexplained nocturnal death syndrome. The men showed no underlying causes except they experienced higher rates of sleep paralysis and expressed their belief in the imaginations from their nightmares.In 1979, sleep paralysis was recognized as a diagnosis by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Diagnostic Classification of Sleep and Arousal Disorder.In 1993, it was revealed people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had higher instances of sleep atonia due to stress and fatigue.In 1999, a study found up to 20 percent of students were affected by sleep paralysis, peaking at the age of 30. They also found 32 percent of psychiatric patients have at least one sleep paralysis episode in their lives.In 2013, sleep paralysis rates increased to 65 percent in a group of Cambodian refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The increased sleep palsy rate suggested stress, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and trauma could cause sleep atonia.Sleep Paralysis In CultureSleep atonia is globally recorded in verbal and written stories to explain symptoms of sleep paralysis. The term nightmare is partially related to the imagination that a presence sits on the sleeper’s chest during the night causing the feeling of pressure and difficulty breathing.In countries around the world, people have their own unique interpretations of the why and how of sleep paralysis. Most times, there’s an assumption that there’s a more malevolent meaning behind it and some feel the experience is so realistic that their perception of the world changes based on the things they see and hear during sleep paralysis.It has even become a popular topic among entertainment culture as sleep paralysis is horrifying when you experience it and that horror can be further exaggerated in a storyline.ConclusionIf you have sleep paralysis episodes frequently, consider seeing a physician. A medical or psychiatric doctor can guide you through ways to treat the underlying cause or develop ways to improve your sleep routine and prevent recurring episodes.This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional. Comments Cancel replyLeave a CommentYour email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Comment Name Email I agree to the Terms and Conditions of this website.