Have you ever awakened from sleep, but were unable to move? You felt awake, but no matter how hard you tried moving your arms or legs, they just wouldn’t respond to your commands? You might have even been afraid enough to call out for help but couldn’t even muster the sound? Sleep paralysis may happen to you once, or it could be a frequent occurrence. The helplessness you feel may be frightening, but it is not considered a dangerous health problem. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a scary or preventable condition. Continue reading to find out more about this strange condition, possible causes and how to treat it when it happens.
Sleep researchers have concluded that for the most part, sleep paralysis is a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the transitions or stages of sleep, especially the four to five cycles of REM sleep that most people experience throughout their time in bed each night.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
The condition manifests itself as a feeling of being conscious but not being able to move. It normally occurs when a person passes from the stage between wakefulness and sleep. As your body makes the transition, you may not be able to move or speak. This can last for several seconds or a few minutes.
What’s going on in your body?
Behind the scenes of your normal sleep patterns, your brain is regulating your body in several ways. Neurons in your brain stem known as REM sleep-on cells activate during REM sleep. The manufacture of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin and histamine are shut down during REM and your body is put into a paralysis state by the brain. Motor neuron function is diminished or inhibited as well.
The mind itself protects the body while in a sleep state from, basically hurting itself as a reaction to a vivid dream state. If we acted out our unconscious dreams without these physical barriers to our bodies, Humans would hurt themselves every single night they went to bed. What some have called “Defensive Immobilization,” the bodies reflex functions is the last line of defense against an attacking predator. Just as some animals can appear dead when faced with danger, the neurophysiology of the reaction in the human brain shows very striking similarities.
When does Sleep Paralysis Occur
Sleep paralysis can usually occur during specific times during your sleep cycle.
|Hypnagogic or Predormital Sleep Paralysis As you fall asleep, your body slowly moves from an alert, waking state to a more relaxed state. As you become less aware of your conscious self, you may not even realize that you are transitioning into a sleep state. However, if you remain or become aware while falling asleep, you may notice that you can not move or speak.||Hypnopompic or Postdormital Sleep Paralysis This can happen when you are waking up from REM sleep. During your sleep cycle, your body alternates between REM or rapid eye movement and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. Each cycle of REM and NREM sleep can last about an hour and a half.|
NREM and REM Sleep Cycle Activity
Non Rapid Eye Movement Sleep takes up around 75% of your overall sleep time. During this sleep cycle, your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of the 90 minutes, your sleep will shift to REM sleep where dreams occur, however your body will still remain very relaxed from the NREM sleep cycle. Your muscles are actually “turned-off” during REM Sleep. If you become aware before the REM cycle has finished, you may notice that you can’t move or speak.
Factors That Can Be Linked to Sleep Paralysis
This is a common condition that can affect as many as 4 in 10 people, including teenagers. In fact, it is common to notice the condition first after the onset of puberty. However, men and women of any age can have it. There is some evidence to suggest that it can run in families. Common factors that can cause it are:
- Lack of Sleep
- Your Sleeping Schedule Changes
- Mental Conditions including stress can be a factor
- Sleeping on your back
- Additional Sleep problems such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps
- Using certain medications
- Substance Abuse
Sleep paralysis can be a scary condition, but it doesn’t have to be one that makes you anxious or afraid to go to bed. Don’t let this very common condition affect you more than it should. And definitely don’t let it stop you from getting a good night’s sleep. There is hope!
In our next article, we are going to look at how sleep paralysis is diagnosed, and how to treat the underlying condition that causes symptoms. We’ll also take a jaunt into the past and see how this common issue has been around for many centuries.