A new study investigates sleep paralysis, a time of transition to and from sleep when hallucinations may be present.
Sleep paralysis is defined as “a discrete period of time during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet ocular and respiratory movements are intact.”
Psychologists at Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania say that less than 8 percent of the general population experiences sleep paralysis although two groups experience a greater prevalence — students and psychiatric patients.
The disorder is recognized as influencing fictional and historic events. Alien abductions and incubi and succubi, as well as other demons that attack while people are asleep, are implicated as different cultural interpretations of sleep paralysis.
The Salem witch trials are now thought possibly to involve the townspeople experiencing sleep paralysis. And in the 19th-century novel “Moby-Dick,” the main character Ishmael experiences an episode of sleep paralysis in the form of a malevolent presence in the room.
Researchers noted that some people who experience these episodes may regularly try to avoid going to sleep because of the unpleasant sensations they experience. But other people enjoy the sensations they feel during sleep paralysis.
“I realized that there were no real sleep paralysis prevalence rates available that were based on large and diverse samples,” said psychologist and researcher Dr. Brian A. Sharpless. “So I combined data from my previous study with 34 other studies in order to determine how common it was in different groups.”
He looked at a total of 35 published studies from the past 50 years to find lifetime sleep paralysis rates. These studies surveyed a total of 36,533 people.
Overall he found that about one-fifth of these people experienced an episode at least once. Frequency of sleep paralysis ranged from once in a lifetime to every night.
When looking at specific groups, 28 percent of students reported experiencing sleep paralysis, while nearly 32 percent of psychiatric patients reported experiencing at least one episode.
Panic disorders were often associated with sleep paralysis as almost 35 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing these episodes.
Sleep paralysis also appears to be more common in non-Caucasians.
“Sleep paralysis should be assessed more regularly and uniformly in order to determine its impact on individual functioning and better articulate its relation to other psychiatric and medical conditions,” said Sharpless.
Sharpless performed a multi-national review of the condition and found that people experience three basic types of hallucinations during sleep paralysis: the presence of an intruder, pressure on the chest sometimes accompanied by physical and/or sexual assault experiences and levitation or out-of-body experiences.
According to the researchers, little research has been conducted on how to alleviate sleep paralysis or whether or not people experience episodes throughout their lives.
“I want to better understand how sleep paralysis affects people, as opposed to simply knowing that they experience it,” said Sharpless. “I want to see how it impacts their lives.”
Future research will look at relationships between sleep paralysis and post-traumatic stress disorder, says Sharpless.
Source: Penn State University