SLEEP PARALYSIS – THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT IS LESS FRIGHTENING THAN REALITY

OVERVIEW

Some of us have experienced once or twice (or more times than we would like to remember) the frightening experience of suddenly waking up from deep sleep, only to find that we can not even bat an eyelid, let alone move a single muscle. For many of us, this disturbing experience is augmented by the presence of an otherworldly being either sitting on our chest or present in the same room as us. This highly intriguing phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis, a psycho-physical process where you are awake but your body is briefly paralyzed. Once it passes, you can move and speak as normal. The paralysis can last from a few seconds to several minutes.

A European study of over 8,000 people in Italy and Germany revealed that only 6.2% of the people surveyed had experienced sleep paralysis even one time, so it is a relatively uncommon phenomenon.

Sleep paralysis does not harm your body, but not being able to move can be very frightening. Some people have sleep paralysis once or twice in their life, while others experience it a few times a month or more regularly.

SOME SLEEP SCIENCE…

Sleep is a fascinating phenomenon. It happens in cycles, each of which is split into two phases: non-REM and REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement, as the eyes dart around during this stage.

The brain is very active in REM sleep and most dreams occur during this period. Also during this time, the body is paralysed, apart from the eyes and diaphragm (the main muscle used in breathing). It is thought that this occurs to stop us acting out the actions in our dreams.

Sleep paralysis happens when the normal muscular paralysis of REM sleep temporarily continues after you have woken up.

WHY DOES SLEEP PARALYSIS HAPPEN

It is normal for your muscles to be paralysed at certain times when you are asleep. Sleep paralysis occurs when the mechanism that causes your muscles to relax during sleep temporarily persists after you have woken up.

Sometimes, sleep paralysis can be a symptom of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a relatively rare sleep disorder that causes a person to fall asleep suddenly and unexpectedly, disrupting their normal sleep pattern.

Other risk factors for sleep paralysis include:

sleep deprivation
a possible family tendency towards the condition.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

The main symptom of sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or talk. It usually happens when you are coming out of sleep, but can also happen when you are falling asleep.

As you will be completely aware of the fact that you cannot move, the experience can be very frightening. However, sleep paralysis is not dangerous to your health.

Sometimes, people hallucinate while their body is paralysed. This involves seeing or hearing things that are not there. However, this does not happen to everyone.

You may be unable to move for a short period of time, which could last from a few seconds to several minutes. After this, you will be able to move and speak as normal.

Many people only experience sleep paralysis once or twice in their life. If it happens several times a month or more regularly, it is known as isolated sleep paralysis.

LIMITING TROUBLESOME SLEEP PARALYSIS

Sleep paralysis is more common in people who are sleep deprived, so getting enough sleep could reduce the number of episodes of sleep paralysis you have. Most adults need around six to nine hours of sleep each night.

Keeping a regular sleeping schedule, where you go to bed and get up at roughly the same time, can also help.

Tips for improving your sleeping habits include:

creating a restful sleeping environment that is quiet, dark and not too hot or cold
making sure your bed is comfortable
exercising regularly, but not close to bedtime
cutting down on caffeine
not eating or drinking alcohol before bedtime
not smoking, as nicotine is a stimulant

If your sleep paralysis is particularly troublesome, you may be prescribed a short course of medication called a tricyclic antidepressant, such as clomipramine. Antidepressants are most commonly used to treat depression, but they can also treat severe sleep paralysis.

Dr. Annie

Physician, mom and wife

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