Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which people, either when falling asleep or wakening, temporarily experience an inability to move. It is a transition state between wakefulness and rest characterized by complete muscle atonia (muscle weakness). It can occur at sleep onset or upon awakening, and it is often associated with terrifying visions, such as an intruder in the room, to which one is unable to react due to paralysis. It is believed to be a result of disrupted REM sleep, which is normally characterized by complete muscle atonia that prevents individuals from acting out their dreams. Sleep paralysis has been linked to disorders such as narcolepsy, migraines, anxiety disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea; however, it can also occur in isolation. When linked to another disorder, sleep paralysis commonly occurs in association with the neurological sleep disorder narcolepsy.
The two major classifications of sleep paralysis are isolated sleep paralysis (ISP) and recurrent isolated sleep paralysis (RISP). Of these two types, ISP is much more common than RISP. ISP episodes are infrequent and of short duration, approximately one minute. Sleep paralysis might even only occur once in an individual's lifetime. As the name suggests, recurrent isolated sleep paralysis is a chronic condition. The individual suffers from frequent episodes throughout their lifetime. One of the major differences between ISP and RISP is duration. RISP episodes can last for up to an hour or longer, and have a much higher occurrence of perceived out of body experiences—while ISP episodes are generally short (usually no longer than one minute) and are typically associated with the intruder and incubus hallucinations. RISP episodes can, however, persist for up to half an hour. With RISP the individual can also suffer back to back episodes of sleep paralysis in the same night while this is unlikely in individuals who suffer from ISP.
It can be difficult to differentiate between cataplexy brought on by narcolepsy and true sleep paralysis, because the two phenomena are physically indistinguishable. The best way to differentiate between the two is to note when the attacks occur most often. Narcolepsy attacks are more common when the individual is falling asleep; ISP and RISP attacks are more common on awakening.
Signs and symptoms
Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), by Eugène Thivier (1894)
Physiologically, sleep paralysis is closely related to REM atonia, the paralysis that occurs as a natural part of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Sleep paralysis occurs either when falling asleep, or when awakening. When it occurs upon falling asleep, the person remains aware while the body shuts down for REM sleep, and it is called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. When it occurs upon awakening, the person becomes aware before the REM cycle is complete, and it is called hypnopompic or postdormital. The paralysis can last from several seconds to several minutes, with some rare cases being hours, "by which the individual may experience panic symptoms" (described below). As the correlation with REM sleep suggests, the paralysis is not entirely complete; use of EOG traces shows that eye movement is still possible during such episodes; however, the individual experiencing sleep paralysis is unable to speak.
Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are symptoms commonly experienced during episodes of sleep paralysis. Some scientists have proposed this condition as an explanation for reports of alien abductions and ghostly encounters. Some suggest that reports of alien abductions are related to sleep paralysis rather than to temporal lobe lability. There are three main types of these hallucinations that can be linked to pathologic neurophysiology. These include the belief that there is an intruder in the room, the incubus, and vestibular motor sensations.
Many people that experience sleep paralysis are struck with a deep sense of terror, because they sense a menacing presence in the room while paralyzed—hereafter referred to as the intruder. This phenomenon is believed to be the result of a hyper vigilant state created in the midbrain. More specifically, the emergency response activates in the brain when individuals wake up paralyzed and feel vulnerable to attack. This helplessness can intensify the effects of the threat response well above the level typical to normal dreams; this could explain why hallucinations during sleep paralysis are so vivid. Normally the threat activated vigilance system is a protective mechanism the body uses to differentiate between dangerous situations and determine whether the fear response is appropriate. This threat vigilance system is evolutionarily biased to interpret ambiguous stimuli as dangerous, because "erring on the side of caution" increases survival chances. This could explain why those who experience sleep paralysis generally believe the presence they sense is evil. The amygdala is heavily involved in the threat activation response mechanism, which is implicated in both intruder and incubus SP hallucinations. The specific pathway the threat-activated vigilance system acts through is not perfectly understood. It is believed that either the thalamus receives sensory information and sends it on the amygdala, which regulates emotional experience—or that the amygdaloid complex, anterior cingulate, and the structures in the pontine tegmentum interact to create the hallucination. It is also highly possible that SP hallucinations could result from a combination of these. The anterior cingulate has an extensive array of cortical connections to other cortical area, which lets it integrate the different sensations and emotions we experience. The amygdaloid complex helps us interpret emotional experience and act appropriately. Most importantly, it helps us direct our attention to the most pertinent stimuli in a potentially dangerous situation and act appropriately. Proper amygdaloid complex function requires input from the thalamus. This creates a thalamoamygdala pathway capable of bypassing intense scrutiny of incoming stimuli, which allows for quick responses in a potentially life-threatening situation.
Typically these pathways let us quickly disregard non-threatening situations. In sleep paralysis, however, these pathways become over-excited and move into a state of hypervigilance where the mind perceives every external stimulus as a threat. The individual can create endogenous stimuli that contribute to the perceived threat. A similar process occurs in the incubus hallucination, with slight variations.
The incubus hallucination is associated with the subject's belief that an intruder is attempting to suffocate them, usually by strangulation. It is believed that the incubus hallucination is a combination of the threat vigilance activation system and the muscle paralysis associated with sleep paralysis that removes voluntary control of breathing. Several features of REM breathing patterns exacerbate the feeling of suffocation. These include shallow rapid breathing, hypercapnia, and slight blockage of the airway, a symptom prevalent in sleep apnea patients. Attempts at breathing deeply fail, and give the individual a sense of resistance, which the threat-activated vigilance system interprets as someone sitting on their chest, suffocating them. The sensation of entrapment causes a feedback loop that involves the threat-activated vigilance system: fear of suffocation increases as a result of continued helplessness, which makes the individual struggle to end the SP episode. The intruder and incubus hallucinations highly correlate with one another, and moderately correlate with the third type of hallucination, vestibular-motor hallucination, also known as out-of-body experiences.
The third hallucination type differs from the other two in that it involves the brainstem, cerebellar, and cortical vestibular centers—not the threat activation vigilance system. Under normal conditions, medial and vestibular nuclei, cortical, thalamic, and cerebellar centers coordinate things such as head and eye movement, and orientation in space. In sleep paralysis, these mechanisms—which usually coordinate body movement and provide information on body position—activate and, because there is no actual movement, become confused and induce a floating sensation. The vestibular nuclei in particular has been identified as being closely related to dreaming during the REM stage of sleep. Unlike the other two types of hallucinations, vestibular-motor experiences arise from completely endogenous sources of stimuli.
The pathophysiology of sleep paralysis has not been concretely identified, although there are several theories about what causes an individual to develop sleep paralysis. The first of these stems from the understanding that sleep paralysis is a parasomnia resulting from inappropriate overlap of the REM and waking stages of sleep. Polysomnographic studies found that individuals with sleep paralysis had shorter REM sleep latencies than normal along with shortened NREM and REM sleep cycles, and fragmentation of REM sleep. This study supports the observation that disturbance of regular sleeping patterns can instigate an episode of sleep paralysis, because fragmentation of REM sleep commonly occurs when sleep patterns are disrupted and has now been seen in combination with sleep paralysis.
Another major theory is that the neural bodies that regulate sleep are out of balance in such a way that allows for the different sleep states to overlap. In this case, cholinergic sleep on neural populations are hyper activated and the serotonergic sleep off neural populations are under-activated. As a result the cells capable of sending the signals that would allow for complete arousal from the sleep state, the serotonergic neural populations, have difficulty in overcoming the signals sent by the cells that keep the brain in the sleep state. Normally during REM sleep the threshold for a stimulus capable of causing arousal is greatly elevated; however, in individuals with SP there is almost no blocking of exogenous stimuli, which means it is much easier for the individual to be aroused by a stimulus. There may also be a problem with the regulation of melatonin, which under normal circumstances regulates the serotonergic neural populations. Melatonin is typically at its lowest point during REM sleep. Inhibition of melatonin at an inappropriate time would make it impossible for the sleep off neural populations to depolarize when presented with a stimulus that would normally lead to complete arousal. This could explain why the REM and waking stages of sleep overlap during sleep paralysis, and definitely explains the muscle paralysis experienced on awakening. If the effects of sleep on neural populations cannot be counteracted, characteristics of REM sleep are retained upon awakening. Common consequences of sleep paralysis includes headaches, muscle pains or weakness and/or paranoia.
Research has found a genetic component in sleep paralysis. The characteristic fragmentation of REM sleep, hypnopompic, and hypnagogic hallucinations have a heritable component in other parasomnias, which lends credence to the idea that sleep paralysis is also genetic. Twin studies have shown that if one twin of a monozygotic pair experiences sleep paralysis that other twin is very likely to experience it as well. The identification of a genetic component means that there is some sort of disruption of function at the physiological level. Further studies must be conducted to determine whether there is a mistake in the signaling pathway for arousal as suggested by the first theory presented, or whether the regulation of melatonin or the neural populations themselves have been disrupted.
Sleep paralysis could also be a part of a larger diagnosis because of the dissociative state seen during sleep paralysis. Like mentioned earlier patients, especially with narcolepsy, seem to have trouble distinguishing between states of wakefulness and sleep. They are unable to tell if what they are experiencing is a dream or if it is reality. Many patients can recall talking to a doctor if they are in the hospital or family and friends but they are uncertain if this memory was from a state of wakefulness or was experienced in REM sleep. Their recall is very similar to patients who suffer from delirium which is why some experts have come to the conclusion that there is a dissociative state in sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis in narcolepsy: more than just a motor dissociative phenomenon
Another possible cause of sleep paralysis is depression. There is a correlation between depression and sleep disturbances, sleep paralysis being one of them. In people that are depressed there is about an 11% frequency of people that have sleep paralysis. The reasoning behind this is the depression causes disturbances in the REM sleep cycle.
Sleep paralysis is mainly diagnosed by ruling out other potential sleep disorders that could account for the feelings of paralysis. The main disorder that is checked for is narcolepsy due to the high prevalence of narcolepsy in conjunction with sleep paralysis. The availability of a genetic test for narcolepsy makes this an easy disorder to rule out. Once all other conditions have been ruled out, the description that the patient gives of their episode is compared to the typical experiences of sleep paralysis that have been well documented. If the two descriptions match and no other sleep disorder can account for the symptoms, the patient is diagnosed with sleep paralysis.
Several circumstances have been identified that are associated with an increased risk of sleep paralysis. These include insomnia and sleep deprivation, an erratic sleep schedule, stress, overuse of stimulants, physical fatigue, as well as certain medications that are used to treat ADHD. It is also believed that there may be a genetic component in the development of RISP due to a high concurrent incidence of sleep paralysis in monozygotic twins. Sleeping in the supine position has been found to be an especially prominent instigator of sleep paralysis.
Sleeping in the supine position is believed to make the sleeper more vulnerable to episodes of sleep paralysis because in this sleeping position it is possible for the soft palate to collapse and obstruct the airway. This is a possibility regardless of whether the individual has been diagnosed with sleep apnea or not. There may also be a greater rate of microarousals while sleeping in the supine position because there is a greater amount of pressure being exerted on the lungs by gravity.
While many factors can increase risk for ISP or RISP, they can be avoided with minor lifestyle changes. By maintaining a regular sleep schedule and observing good sleep hygiene, one can reduce chances of sleep paralysis. It helps subjects to reduce the intake of stimulants and stress in daily life by taking up a hobby or seeing a trained psychologist who can suggest coping mechanisms for stress. However, some cases of ISP and RISP involve a genetic factor—which means some people may find sleep paralysis unavoidable.
Treatment starts with education about sleep stages and the inability to move muscles during REM sleep. People should be evaluated for narcolepsy if symptoms persist. The safest treatment for sleep paralysis is for people to adopt healthier sleeping habits. However, in serious cases more clinical treatments are available. The most commonly used drugs are tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Despite the fact that these treatments are prescribed for serious cases of RISP, it is important to note that these drugs are not effective for everyone. There is currently no drug that has been found to completely interrupt episodes of sleep paralysis a majority of the time.
Sleep paralysis poses no serious health risk to those that experience it, despite the fact that it can be an intensely terrifying experience.
Isolated sleep paralysis is commonly seen in patients that have been diagnosed with narcolepsy. Approximately 30-50% of people that have been diagnosed with narcolepsy have experienced sleep paralysis as an auxiliary symptom. The prevalence of sleep paralysis in the general population is approximately 6.2%. A majority of the individuals who have experienced sleep paralysis have sporadic episodes that occur once a month to once a year. Only 3% of individuals experiencing sleep paralysis that is not associated with a neuromuscular disorder have nightly episodes, as mentioned earlier, these individuals are diagnosed as having RISP. Sleep paralysis is just as common for males as it is for females, however, different age groups have been found to be more susceptible to developing isolated sleep paralysis. Approximately 36% of the general population that experiences isolated sleep paralysis is likely to develop it between 25 and 44 years of age.
"Great attention is to be paid to regularity and choice of diet. Intemperance of every kind is hurtful, but nothing is more productive of this disease than drinking bad wine. Of eatables those which are most prejudicial are all fat and greasy meats and pastry... Moderate exercise contributes in a superior degree to promote the digestion of food and prevent flatulence; those, however, who are necessarily confined to a sedentary occupation, should particularly avoid applying themselves to study or bodily labor immediately after eating... Going to bed before the usual hour is a frequent cause of night-mare, as it either occasions the patient to sleep too long or to lie long awake in the night. Passing a whole night or part of a night without rest likewise gives birth to the disease, as it occasions the patient, on the succeeding night, to sleep too soundly. Indulging in sleep too late in the morning, is an almost certain method to bring on the paroxysm, and the more frequently it returns, the greater strength it acquires; the propensity to sleep at this time is almost irresistible."
Society and culture
In Scandinavian folklore, sleep paralysis is caused by a mare, a supernatural creature related to incubi and succubi. The mare is a damned woman, who is cursed and her body is carried mysteriously during sleep and without her noticing. In this state, she visits villagers to sit on their rib cages while they are asleep, causing them to experience nightmares. The Swedish film Marianne examines the folklore surrounding sleep paralysis.
Folk belief in Newfoundland, South Carolina and Georgia describe the negative figure of the hag who leaves her physical body at night, and sits on the chest of her victim. The victim usually wakes with a feeling of terror, has difficulty breathing because of a perceived heavy invisible weight on his or her chest, and is unable to move i.e., experiences sleep paralysis. This nightmare experience is described as being "hag-ridden" in the Gullah lore. The "Old Hag" was a nightmare spirit in British and also Anglophone North American folklore.
In Fiji, the experience is interpreted as kana tevoro, being "eaten" by a demon. In many cases the demon can be the spirit of a recently dead relative who has come back for some unfinished business, or has come to communicate some important news to the living. Often persons sleeping near the afflicted person say kania, kania, "eat! eat!" in an attempt to prolong the possession for a chance to converse with the dead relative or spirit and seek answers as to why he or she has come back. The person waking up from the experience is often asked to immediately curse or chase the spirit of the dead relative, which sometimes involves literally speaking to the spirit and telling him or her to go away or using expletives.
In Nigeria, "ISP appears to be far more common and recurrent among people of African descent than among whites or Nigerian Africans," and is often referred to within African communities as "the Devil on your back."
In Turkey sleep paralysis is called karabasan, and is similar to other stories of demonic visitation during sleep. A supernatural being, commonly known as a djinn (cin in Turkish), comes to the victim's room, holds him or her down hard enough not to allow any kind of movement, and starts to strangle the person. To get rid of the demonic creature, one needs to pray to Allah with certain lines from the Qur'an.
In the Southern states of the United States, elders refer to it as the "witch riding your back."
In Eastern Chinese folklore, it is thought that a mouse can steal human breath at night. Human breath strengthens the mouse, allowing it longevity and the ability to briefly become human at night, in a similar fashion to fox spirits. The mouse sits near the person's face or under their nostrils.
In Chinese culture, sleep paralysis is widely known as "鬼壓身/鬼压身" (pinyin: guǐ yā shēn) or "鬼壓床/鬼压床" (pinyin: guǐ yā chuáng), which literally translate into "ghost pressing on body" or "ghost pressing on bed." A more modern term is "夢魘/梦魇" (pinyin: mèng yǎn).
In Japanese culture, sleep paralysis is referred to as kanashibari (金縛り), literally "bound or fastened in metal," from "kane" (metal) and "shibaru" (to bind, to tie, to fasten). This term is occasionally used by English speaking authors to refer to the phenomenon both in academic papers and in pop psych literature.
In Korean culture, sleep paralysis is called gawi nulim (Hangul: 가위눌림), literally, "being pressed down by a ghost." It is often associated with a belief that a ghost or spirit is lying on top of or pressing down on the sufferer.
In Mongolian culture, nightmares in general as well as sleep paralysis is referred to by the verb-phrase khar darakh (written kara darahu), meaning "to be pressed by the Black" or "when the Dark presses." Kara means black, and may refer to the dark side personified. Kharin buu means "shaman of the black" (shamans of the dark side only survive in far-northern Mongolia), while tsaghaan zugiin buu means "shaman of the white direction" (referring to shamans who only invoke benevolent spirits). Compare 'karabasan' (the dark presser) in Turkish, which may date from pre-Islamic times when the Turks had the same religion and mythology as the Mongols. See Mythology of the Turkic and Mongolian peoples and Tengriism.
In Cambodian, Lao, and Thai culture sleep paralysis is called phǐǐ am (Thai pronunciation: [pʰǐi.ʔam], Lao pronunciation: [pʰǐi.ʔàm]) and khmout sukkhot. It is described as an event in which the person is sleeping and dreams that one or more ghostly figures are nearby or even holding him or her down. The sufferer is unable to move or make any noises. This is not to be confused with pee khao and khmout jool, ghost possession.
In Hmong culture, sleep paralysis is understood to be caused by a nocturnal pressing spirit, dab tsog. Dab tsog attacks "sleepers" by sitting on their chests, sometimes attempting to strangle them. Some believe that dab tsog is responsible for sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS), which claimed the lives of over 100 Southeast Asian immigrants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Adler (2011) offers a biocultural perspective on sleep paralysis and the sudden deaths. She suggests that an interplay between the Brugada syndrome (a genetic cardiac disorder) and the traditional meaning of a dab tsog attack are at the heart of the sudden deaths.
In Vietnamese culture, sleep paralysis is called ma đè, meaning "held down by a ghost," or bóng đè, meaning "held down by a shadow."
In New Guinea, people refer to this phenomenon as Suk Ninmyo, believed to originate from sacred trees that use human essence to sustain its life. The trees are said to feed on human essence during night as to not disturb the human's daily life, but sometimes people wake unnaturally during the feeding, resulting in the paralysis.
In Malay of Malay Peninsula, sleep paralysis is known as kena tindih (or ketindihan in Indonesia), which means "being pressed." Incidents are commonly considered to be the work of a malign agency; occurring in what are explained as blind spots in the field of vision, they are reported as demonic figures.
In Kashmiri mythology this is caused by an invisible creature called a "pasikdhar" or a "sayaa". Some people believe that a pasikdhar lives in every house and attacks somebody if the house has not been cleaned or if god is not being worshiped in the house. One also experiences this if one has been doing something evil or derives pleasure from the misfortunes of others.
In Bangladesh, the phenomenon of sleep paralysis is referred to as boba meaning "speechless" for the reason that people can't move their body and can't talk even if they want to.
In Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamil culture, this particular phenomenon is referred to as 'Amuku Be' or 'Amuku Pei' meaning "the ghost that forces one down."
In Nepal, especially Newari culture it is also known as 'Khyaak' a ghost-like figure believed to reside in the darkness under the staircases of a house.
Middle-East, Western and Central Asia
In Arabic Culture, sleep paralysis is often referred to as 'Ja-thoom' (Arabic: جاثوم), literally "What sits heavily on something". In folklore across Arab countries, the 'Ja-thoom' is believed to be a shayṭān or a ‘ifrīt sitting on top of the person or is also choking him. It is said that it can be prevented by sleeping on your right side and reading the Throne Verse of the Quran.
In Turkish culture, sleep paralysis is often referred to as "karabasan" ("The dark presser/assailer"). It is believed to be a creature that attacks people in their sleep, pressing on their chest and stealing their breath. However, folk legends do not provide a reason why the devil or ifrit does that.
In Persian culture it is known as 'bakhtak' (Persian: بختک), which is a ghost-like creature that sits on the dreamer's chest, making breathing hard for him/her.
In Kurdish culture, sleep paralysis is often referred to as "motakka". It is believed to be a demon that attacks people in their sleep, and particularly children of young age, which they breathe heavily as for "motakka" will be stealing their breath away and keep it out of reach.
In African American culture, isolated sleep paralysis is commonly referred to as "the witch riding your back."
Ogun Oru is a traditional explanation for nocturnal disturbances among the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria; ogun oru (nocturnal warfare) involves an acute night-time disturbance that is culturally attributed to demonic infiltration of the body and psyche during dreaming. Ogun oru is characterized by its occurrence, a female preponderance, the perception of an underlying feud between the sufferer's earthly spouse and a 'spiritual' spouse, and the event of bewitchment through eating while dreaming. The condition is believed to be treatable through Christian prayers or elaborate traditional rituals designed to exorcise the imbibed demonic elements.
In Zimbabwean Shona culture the word Madzikirira is used to refer something really pressing one down. This mostly refers to the spiritual world in which some spirit—especially an evil one—tries to use its victim for some evil purpose. The people believe that witches can only be people of close relations to be effective, and hence a witches often try to use one's spirit to bewitch one's relatives.
In Ethiopian culture the word 'dukak' (ዱካክ - Amharic) is used, which is believed to be an evil spirit that possesses people during their sleep. Some people believe this experience is linked to use of Khat ( ጫት 'Chat' - Amharic). Khat users experience sleep paralysis when suddenly quitting chewing Khat after use for a long time. In Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, the word 'dukak' taken out of the context of Khat withdrawal related sleep paralysis, means depression. The evil spirit 'dukak' is an anthropomorphism (anthropomorphic personification) of the depression that often results from the act of quitting chewing Khat. 'Dukak' often appears in hallucinations of the quitters and metes out punishments to its victims for offending him by quitting. The punishments are often in the form of implausible physical punishments (e.g., the 'dukak' puts the victim in a bottle and shakes the bottle vigorously) or outrageous tasks the victim must perform (e.g., swallow a bag of gravel).
In Swahili speaking East Africa, it is known as jinamizi, which refers to a creature sitting on one's chest making it difficult for him/her to breathe. It is attributed to result from a person sleeping on his back. Most people also recall being strangled by this 'creature'.
In the Moroccan culture, Sleep Paralysis is known as "Bou Rattat" which mean a demon that press & covers all you body so you are not able to move or speak.
In Finnish folk culture sleep paralysis is called unihalvaus (dream paralysis), but the Finnish word for nightmare, painajainen, is believed to originally have meant sleep paralysis, as the word painaja translates to pusher or presser, but with nen added to the end.
In Hungarian folk culture sleep paralysis is called lidércnyomás (lidérc pressing) and can be attributed to a number of supernatural entities like lidérc (wraith), boszorkány (witch), tündér (fairy) or ördögszerető (demon lover). The word boszorkány itself stems from the Turkish root bas-, meaning "to press."
In Iceland folk culture sleep paralysis is generally called having a Mara. A goblin or a succubus (since it is generally female) believed to cause nightmares (the origin of the word 'Nightmare' itself is derived from an English cognate of her name). Other European cultures share variants of the same folklore, calling her under different names; Proto-Germanic: marōn; Old English: mære; German: Mahr; Dutch: nachtmerrie; Icelandic, Old Norse, Faroese, and Swedish: mara; Danish: mare; Norwegian: mare; Old Irish: morrigain; Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Slovene: môra; Bulgarian, Polish: mara; French: cauchemar; Romanian: moroi; Czech: můra; Slovak: mora. The origin of the belief itself is much older, back to the reconstructed Proto Indo-European root mora-, an incubus, from the root mer- "to rub away" or "to harm."
In Malta, folk culture attributes a sleep paralysis incident to an attack by the Haddiela, who is the wife of the Hares, an entity in Maltese folk culture that haunts the individual in ways similar to a poltergeist. As believed in folk culture, to get rid of the Haddiela, one must place a piece of silverware or a knife under the pillow prior to sleep.
In Greece and Cyprus, it is believed that sleep paralysis occurs when a ghost-like creature or Demon named Mora, Vrahnas or Varypnas (Greek: Μόρα, Βραχνάς, Βαρυπνάς) tries to steal the victim's speech or sits on the victim's chest causing asphyxiation.
In Catalan legend and popular culture, the Pesanta is an enormous dog (or sometimes a cat) that goes into people's houses in the night and puts itself on their chests making it difficult for them to breathe and causing them the most horrible nightmares. The Pesanta is black and hairy, with steel paws, but with holes so it can't take anything.
In Latvian folk culture sleep paralysis is called a torture or strangling by Lietuvēns. It is thought to be a soul of a killed (strangled, drowned, hanged) person and attacks both people and domestic animals. When under attack, one must move the toe of the left foot to get rid of the attacker.
In Mexico, it is believed that this is caused by the spirit of a dead person. This ghost lies down upon the body of the sleeper, rendering him unable to move. People refer to this as "subirse el muerto" (dead person on you).
In many parts of the Southern United States, the phenomenon is known as a hag, and the event is said to portend an approaching tragedy or accident.
In Newfoundland, it is known as the 'Old Hag'. In island folklore, the Hag can be summoned to attack a third party, like a curse. In his 1982 book, The Terror that Comes in the Night, David J. Hufford writes that in local culture the way to call the Hag is to recite the Lord's Prayer backwards.
In contemporary western culture the phenomenon of supernatural assault are thought[by whom?] to be the work of what are known as shadow people. Victims report primarily three different entities, a man with a hat, the old hag noted above, and a hooded figure. Sleep paralysis is known to involve a component of hallucination in 20% of the cases, which may explain these sightings. Sleep paralysis in combination with hallucinations has long been suggested as a possible explanation for reported alien abduction.
Several studies show that African-Americans may be predisposed to isolated sleep paralysis—known in folklore as "the witch is riding you" or "the haint is riding you." Other studies show that African-Americans who experience frequent episodes of isolated sleep paralysis, i.e., reporting having one or more sleep paralysis episodes per month coined as "sleep paralysis disorder," were predisposed to panic attacks. This finding has been replicated by other independent researchers.
In Brazil, there is a legend about a mythological being called the pisadeira ("she who steps (on someone's back)").
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