Sleep Paralysis – What causes it? Is it related to PTSD or demons?


By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Sleep paralysis.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Is Sleep Paralysis related to PTSD or the supernatural?

Imagine awakening suddenly in the middle of the night. Sitting on your chest is a demon; there are ghosts, dead people, or spirits standing around your bed. You try to scream but nothing comes from your throat. You would run if you could but your legs won’t work. You are awake and paralyzed. Looking up at the demons you are helpless to do anything beyond saying a silent prayer inside your head. You are experiencing Sleep Paralysis.

Sleep Paralysis is one of those unusual problems. This condition is especially terrifying to someone who has the disorder.  If you have a belief in the supernatural you may dread falling asleep.

Sleep Paralysis has long been more the province of legends and the supernatural than included in the area of mental health. This experience has been connected to many otherworldly phenomena. Similar experiences were described during the Salem witchcraft trials.

Today we have a scientific explanation that satisfies some, some of the time, but are we sure?

In Sleep Paralysis you can see, move your eyes and breathe, but the rest of your body is unable to move.  Some episodes of Sleep Paralysis last seconds. The average is six minutes. Occasional an episode of sleep paralysis will last longer than 6 minutes or on rare occasion’s hours.

Many people with Sleep Paralysis, up to 30% also have a history of Panic Attacks. It is more common among those with PTSD or anxiety disorders. Sleep Paralysis is also most common among those with minority status, especially African-Americans (Sharpless et al 2010.)

Other researchers have suggested that dissociation may be related to the old or “Lizard brains” freeze response to threat or danger. The same mechanism might explain the inability to move despite overwhelming terror found in Sleep Paralysis. Fear and anxiety may both cause and be the consequence of Sleep Paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is more common with overtired or sleep-deprived individuals. It is also associated with taking Antidepressants, Benzodiazepines, and some other medications. Ohayon et al., 1999 (Cited by Sharpless) also suggested a relationship between SSRIs and Sleep Paralysis but Sharpless did not find a connection.

Sleep paralysis can occur when falling asleep or when awakening from sleep. Its main characteristic is not being able to move for an extended period of time. This condition occurs naturally during REM sleep but we don’t know we are becoming paralyzed when we are asleep.

The episodes of paralysis while awake are most often accompanied by very vivid hallucinations. The more vivid the hallucinations the more terrifying the Sleep Paralysis. Sometimes the person will experience hearing sounds. Even when experiencing the full symptoms of Sleep Paralysis, both the visions and the inability to move, many people describe the experience as a “dream” (Fukuda et al, 2000.)

If the hallucinations occur when falling asleep they are called Hypnogogic. Hallucinations that occur when awakening are called Hypnopompic.

Sleep paralysis may be connected with a physical disorder such as Narcolepsy. Reports suggest that those who hear sounds are most likely to also have narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis has also been associated with Migraines. If this occurs more than once or causes significant distress it is wise to seek medical attention.

Sleep paralysis is more likely to occur when someone has moved to a new location, is under stress, or has consumed an excessive amount of alcohol.

Mental health practitioners, therapists, and counselors are mostly concerned with two relationships between sleep and mental health. Is the problem with sleep caused by a mental illness? Symptoms of depression include changes in sleep and appetite. Depression can be seen as the cause of a sleep problem.

Sometimes sleep issues can create symptoms that are diagnosed as mental illness. Nightmares play a role in maintaining depression and PTSD.

Beyond those two alternatives, most other sleep issues are in the providence of medical doctors. There are plenty of sleep problems that are in the International classification of sleep disorders that are not directly included in the DSM.

The following are past posts on connections between sleep and mental health issues.

Getting Rid of Nightmares that Maintain Depression and PTSD

Trauma Steals Your Sleep 

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9 thoughts on “Sleep Paralysis – What causes it? Is it related to PTSD or demons?

  1. Three Reasons We Have Nightmares
    All nightmares are caused by palpitations . There are three main types of nightmares (death dreams or being chased dreams ,flying dreams or falling dreams and sleep paralysis) that are caused by three main scary symptoms {the scary sensations of palpitation make you feel as if you are going to die at any moment[1], the scary sinking feeling in heart of palpitation and scary fainting (syncope) }. They are all different in certain ways. All three types of nightmares has symptom of a scary heart palpitations-sensations. Scary sleep paralysis or scary fainting (syncope) has symptoms of scary lightheaded and dizzy , a loss of strength and a loss of consciousness, perspiration, vision problems, difficulty hearing, ringing in your ears, pressure in your chest[2] and others do not. [1]http://www.anxietyguru.net/how-to-stop-heart-palpitations/ [2]http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Fainting/Pages/Symptoms.aspx.

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    • Thanks for your comment in the discussion on palpitations. When I think of nightmares I think of a much broader group of disturbing dreams. The 3 examples you cited all have to do with body integrity. Many clients I see have nightmares that are relationship-focused. Dreams that their partner will leave them, or a child is missing, or that they will be fired from their job. It’s possible the fears in these dreams could set off adrenaline (norepinephrine) and cause palpitations been in all these types of dreams the scary event comes before the palpitations. Thanks for reading and best wishes.

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  2. As Germany’s well-known psychologist William Wundt’s view of “ the most common causes of the dream are indigestion, heart pulsation(palpitations or flustered),difficulity in breathing, as well as such symptoms.” For instance, students dreaming the examination before the pre-examination, is caused by the things about examination. The sense of urgent urination would give rise to the dream of looking for the toilet. In a cold night, thin quilt would cause one to dream the clothes are socked by water and thus make him/her feel cold. When palpitations occurs, people will have two most common feelings: one is tachycardia cause a feeling of seeming to be chasing ; the other is bradycardia or premature beat cause the feeling of heart suspension or heart sinking. Therefore, people in sleep accordingly will have the two most common nightmares : one is dream of being chased (occasionally hunting other people) ; the other is dream of flying in the air or dream of falling down. Persons who palpitation is easy to occur are easy to have nightmare, drugs can cause nightmare because drugs can cause palpitation. Females are easier to have nightmare than males, because palpitation is easier occur to females than to males. Women have a huge amount of nightmares during pregnancy because women experience more palpitations in pregnancy. Physical factors that contribute to bad dreams include fever as also sleep because fever causes an increase in the heart rate. If transient cerebral ischemia or fainting occuring during the day may result in some very terrible dizziness, palpitations, feelings of chest pressure, dim vision, tinnitus and a variety of neurological symptoms. As a result, all the people who are prone to cerebral ischemia or fainting frail corporeity, excessive fear, taking the quinidine which may lead to low blood pressure, as well as a excessive high pillow ors, error in sleeping style which may lead to the aggrieved neck, pressed blood stream. when they sleep in deep night, they will have the extraordinary corresponding horrible dreams, in the dreams, they do some kind of terrible Belial pressuring them or being hunted down, but they can not cry out or escape, which is known as sleep paralysis. .For a long time, due to the ignorance of physiological knowledge of syncope , ischemie cerebrale , slow beat, fast beat and so on, psychological illusion in people’s sleep generated by such physical symptoms i.e. the nightmare really has puzzled the psychologists, therefore they put forward a wide range of wrong even absurd views onthe nightmares, which both have no scientific basis, and could not be confirmed, even more were not self-consistent. For example, a medical expert Debacke drew the correct conclusion that the anxiety-dream resulted from ischemie cerebrale according to the physiological symptoms of the anxiety-dream of a boy of thirteen. Freud called such view was a ” medical mythology” in the book of Dream Psychology. Most important,the experiment confirmed the idea. For example, a place in country , there is a “haunted” bed which makes people have sleep paralysis or syncope every night, and it is this fact that the pillow in the bed is too high will reduce cerebral blood flow. Another example, sleeping pills are the treatment of nightmare of being chased of neurasthenia, due to the nightmare of being chased of such patients is caused by tachycardia, and sleeping pills can lead to slower heartbeat, moreover slower heartbeat sometimes leads to sleep paralysis or fainting for people of low blood pressure. Therefore, treating a nightmare with sleeping pills at times is not only invalid, but also it will instead increase the patient’s state of the disease.

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  3. Pingback: Mental Health, Self-improvement & Happy life –Counselorssoapbox.com January 2013 Best of Blog | counselorssoapbox

  4. Physiological symptoms of sleep paralysis are the same with those of syncope. Thus, sleep paralysis is caused by syncope. For experts in cardiovascular diseases, sleep paralysis or syncope is a common symptoms of cardiovascular disease【1】.For a long time, due to the ignorance of physiological knowledge of syncope , ischemie cerebrale , slow beat, fast beat and so on, psychological illusion in people’s sleep generated by such physical symptoms i.e. the nightmare really has puzzled the psychologists, therefore they put forward a wide range of wrong even absurd views onthe nightmares, which both have no scientific basis, and could not be confirmed, even more were not self-consistent.For example, a medical expert Debacke drew the correct conclusion that the anxiety-dream resulted from ischemie cerebrale according to the physiological symptoms of the anxiety-dream of a boy of thirteen. Freud called such view was a ” medical mythology” in the book of Dream Psychology. Most important,the experiment confirmed the idea. For example, a place in country , there is a “haunted” bed which makes people have sleep paralysis or syncope every night, and it is this fact that the pillow in the bed is too high will reduce cerebral blood flow.【1】http://www.medhelp.org/posts/Sleep-Disorders/Nocturnal-fainting/show/11612

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    • Thanks for that information. A great reminder for counselors and therapists that we always need to be sure the client has seen a medical doctor. If it has a physical or medical cause, that’s not a mental illness.

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  5. Pingback: What is the difference between depression and Major Depressive Disorder? | counselorssoapbox

  6. Pingback: What are the six kinds of hallucinations? | counselorssoapbox

  7. Pingback: Does sleep paralysis cause or is it caused by mental illness? | counselorssoapbox

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