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A. Conventional wisdom: REM atonia is a normal function of the body. The muscles that move the body are "turned off" during REM sleep, which prevents you from acting out dreamed actions in reality. Non-REM sleep paralysis after waking up ("old hag") is caused by a failure to re-activate the muscles immediately. Normally this condition lasts only a few seconds, but sometimes it can go for a minute, which causes a very scary feeling. You are damn sure you're awake now but you can't move. This is extremely unpleasant but at least not dangerous.
[Editor's note: A student who suffered from sleep paralysis (like her mother and grandmother) said the easiest "cure" is not to struggle but to go back to sleep and wake up a second time. --RD]
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