Sleep Paralysis: Everything You Need to Know

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You’ve probably
experienced sleep paralysis at least once in your life. That terrifying moment
when you can’t move a muscle, but you’re
still aware of your surroundings. You’ve probably also experienced horrifying
visions and have some quite terrifying
memories of it.

The condition occurs when your brain is still awake, but the parts that control the rest of your body are still asleep. This causes temporary paralysis for varying periods of time. Sleep paralysis, however, doesn’t last for more than a few minutes. Try to remember that in case you experience the condition; it can help make it less frightening.  If you’re in the midst of it, there are two ways you can end it: you should either try to fully wake up by focusing all your energy on moving a single muscle (your pinky for example), once you’ve managed to do so, the paralysis should completely wear off. On the other hand, you can always try to fall back to sleep, but depending on the visions that you might have, the degree of difficulty might vary.

Is Sleep Paralysis a Symptom of Any
Serious Mental/Physical Problems?

As far as we know, sleep paralysis isn’t a symptom of anything troubling. According to researchers, this condition is just a sign that your body is not transitioning smoothly between the stages of sleep. There are a couple of cases where sleep paralysis might be cause for concern, but these cases are sporadic.

Throughout the centuries, when sleep paralysis couldn’t be scientifically explained, people usually alluded to this condition as being a sign of an evil presence, be it unseen night demons, hags, dark mythical creatures, etc.

The visions vary from
culture to culture, but do you know what all these visions have in common? All
of them are sure to send shivers down your spine. Perceptions incurred by sleep paralysis have puzzled people for as
long as they’ve been experiencing them and they’ve been mostly looked at as a
manifestation of something metaphysical.

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

To
get the scientific jargon out of the way, sleep paralysis is a parasomnia. In other words, it’s an undesired
event that is associated with sleep

Sleep paralysis
usually happens just before you fall asleep, or when you start to wake up in
the morning, but it can happen anywhere in between, namely during the
transition from one phase of sleep to another.

It’s usually
accompanied by hallucinations (hypnagogic experiences) which can be auditory,
visual, sensory or all at the same time.

Episodes of the condition can be broken down into 3 types:

  • Vestibular-motor or a sense of spinning, flying, floating, falling, over
    one’s body or any other kind of out of
    body experience.
  • Intruder or a sense of a threatening presence, usually accompanied by auditory hallucinations in the form of
    shuffling footsteps or doorknobs opening.
  • Incubus or feelings of pressure on the chest usually accompanied by
    difficulty when breathing. These episodes are the most terrifying and visceral
    since the person would feel like they’re being assaulted by an evil being and
    are on the brink of death.

These are the 3 main
types which have been documented throughout history with little
variations.  All of the aforementioned
are extremely terrifying experiences, and
even though they don’t last much, they always linger in the minds of everyone
who has experienced them.

When Does Sleep Paralysis Occur?

Like we mentioned
above, sleep paralysis can either happen when you’re falling asleep or when
you’re in the midst of waking up. The former is called hypnagogic or pre-dormital sleep paralysis while the latter is
called hypnopompic, or post-dormital
sleep paralysis.

What Happens in Pre-dormital Sleep Paralysis?

When you’re falling
asleep, your body begins to relax slowly,
and your muscles become less responsive, and you become less aware, which makes the
transition seamless. However, if you suddenly become aware in the process, you’ll notice that you aren’t able to move
your body or speak.

What Happens in Post-dormital Sleep Paralysis?

When you fall asleep, your body wavers between rapid eye movement sleep, or REM, and non-rapid eye movement sleep, also known as NREM. An NREM and REM sleep last around one and a half hour or 90 min.

NREM sleep happens
first, taking up about 3/4 of your average slumber duration. All along the NREM
phase, the body is relaxed to allow for restoration and maintenance. Towards
the end of NREM, your sleep switches to REM, resulting in a quick movement of the
eye with complete relaxation of the rest
of your body. That’s when you start to have dreams. Muscles are basically off
during the REM phase. If you become aware prior to the end of the REM phase,
you won’t be able to move or speak.

Who is Prone to Develop Sleep
Paralysis?

While sleep paralysis
is a common occurrence, out of 10 people, 4 tend to have sleep paralysis. It is
most often observed during the teen years. However, it can happen at any age no
matter the gender. It’s also important to mention that sleep paralysis can run
in families, but there are also other factors that can be associated with this disease, such as:

  • Substance abuse
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Substance abuse
  • Certain Mental conditions, like stress or bipolar disorder
  • Choosing the back position while sleeping
  • Sleep schedule that changes
  • Lack of sleep
  • Other sleep problems like the nighttime leg cramps or narcolepsy
  • The usage of certain medications, such as ADHD treatments

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms?

While each person
might experience sleep paralysis in a different way, there are main themes and
symptoms that will always be present no matter the individual.

In her book “Sleep
Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection,” Shelley Adler gives comprehensive coverage of the symptoms that are associated with
sleep paralysis. If you’re short on time and want the short version, we’ve got
you covered.

Before we dive in the
list, let us clarify that for an episode to be considered sleep paralysis, the
3 first symptoms that we’ll be mentioning are a must, the rest, however, will
depend on how severe the experience is and may or may not be present in an
episode.

  • You still retain consciousness, and
    you feel awake.
  • You’re fully aware of your surroundings, and
    your senses are not blurred.
  • You experience paralysis
  • You feel a looming sense of danger, fear, and dread of immense
    intensity.  You experience something
    somewhat akin to a near death experience
  • You feel an evil presence in the room. In some cases, you might even see
    it.
  • You feel as if something is pressing down on your chest. This can be
    sensual or feel as if it’s being given by an external, sometimes physical
    force.
  • You start to experience breathing difficulties, mainly due to the
    formerly mentioned symptom.
  • You usually find yourself lying on your back, even if you don’t usually
    sleep in that position.
  • You experience vivid hallucinations that can either involve one, two, or
    all sense at once, which will make for a terrifying experience.

How Is the Condition Diagnosed?

While it can be a
jarring experience, sleep paralysis is usually an isolated occurrence that
shouldn’t call for concern. However, if you’re anxious
about your symptoms, or if you’re left extremely tired and still shocked the
next day after such an occurrence, or if it’s causing insomnia, you should
consult with a doctor in order to get to the bottom of things.

If you choose to go to
a doctor, they might need to know more about the condition in order to make a
reliable diagnosis. Therefore, they might ask any of the following questions:

  • They might ask you about your health history, whether or not it runs in the family, etc.
  • They might ask you to refer to a specialist.
  • They might ask you to describe your symptoms further and to keep track of each occurrence by making a sleep diary for the following weeks.
  • They might conduct studies of overnight sleep or daytime nap to make sure it’s sleep paralysis you’re dealing with and not any other type of sleeping disorder

The Treatment of Sleep Paralysis

While sleep paralysis
can’t be treated directly, it rarely comes alone, and it can be the result of
several other conditions. It’s vital that you identify said conditions in order
to eliminate the root of the problem. The following conditions might be a catalyst for sleep paralysis:

  • Narcolepsy. People who suffer from narcolepsy usually can’t control their sleep. They tend to go in and out of a
    sleep state almost arbitrarily and without control. Treating it can drastically
    decrease the rate at which one could experience sleep paralysis
  • Sleep apnea. You can easily tell if someone suffers from this condition
    by how often/loud they snore, and whether or not they move sporadically during
    their sleep. This is the result of their airway collapsing during sleep making
    it harder to breathe. In order to cure this condition, several visits to the
    doctor are needed, and a CPAP machine is
    also required for treatment. However, this condition can be one of the main
    instigators of sleep paralysis, thus treating it could drastically help with
    sleep paralysis.
  • Migraines. While there’s no apparent tie-in
    with sleep paralysis frequency, migraines
    seem to be considered as instigators for sleep paralysis and should be treated
    in order to decrease the probability of sleep paralysis.
  • Anxiety. Anxiety causes the brain to be more vigilant and aware of its
    surroundings. One can easily see how this might interfere with the quality of
    sleep and how it can increase the chances of sleep paralysis. It’s recommended
    that the people with this condition take appropriate measure to reduce stress
    and anxiety in order to reduce the chances of sleep paralysis occurring.
  • Sleep deprivation. If you’re sure that you don’t suffer from any of the
    aforementioned conditions, you might not be getting enough sleep. This can also
    be a huge factor when it comes to how often you might experience sleep
    paralysis.

How to Improve One’s Quality of Sleep

When dealing with
sleep paralysis, taking preventive measures is the best way to go. In order to
combat sleep paralysis, one must make sure they follow healthy bed habits,
which include having a regular sleep schedule, and stress management.

Here are some useful
strategies you can use to improve your quality of sleep:

  • Having a consistent and regular sleep schedule.
  • Making sure your one’s sleeping quarters are clean,
    tidy, and comfortable.
  • Having a calming bedtime ritual/activity to reduce
    stress.
  • Getting a healthy dosage of light exposure during the
    day.
  • Minimizing light exposure at the evening and night.
  • Sleeping with the lights and TV off.
  • Leaving phones and other devices out of the bedroom.
  • Abstaining from electronics use at least one hour
    before going to bed.
  • Keeping the bedroom exclusive to sleep time and nothing else.
  • Daily exercise, not within 2 hours before going to bed.
  • Eating a small evening meal 2 hours before going to
    bed.
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening.
  • Avoiding long naps (90+ minutes) after 3:00PM.

Other helpful
practices and measure also include:

  • Dealing with depression or anxiety in an adequate way.
  • Meditation and/or prayer.
  • Avoiding sleeping on your back.
  • Reducing stimulant consumption.

It’s vital that we
maintain good sleeping hygiene as many of
the common health problems we face usually originate from bad sleep hygiene or a lack thereof.

The Effects of Sleep Paralysis

While it might seem
jarring and frightening, sleep paralysis isn’t dangerous. It’s more of an
inconvenience that it is a hazard. However, it might make people fall into a
vicious cycle of sleep deprivation which, in turn, can open up a can full of
worms, anxiety, stress, depression, all these further feed the cycle.

With all that said,
after reading this article, you should now be able to completely avoid sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is easily
treatable which drastically limits its nefariousness.

How Do I Deal with the Condition?

No matter how bad it
gets and how real it might feel, remember two things: There is no real danger,
all you see and hear are hallucinations in your brain, and there’s nothing to fear. Also, these hallucinations never last
for long, the worst thing that could happen is that they would stay for a
couple of minutes.

Instead of being
consumed by fear, try and separate yourself from the façade your brain is
putting up and see it as a wakeup call (pun intended) to let you know that you
need to improve the way you manage stress in your life.

About the author

The Medical Extern

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