Coping with Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a trick our mind plays on us which causes a state of complete muscle weakness where people are paralyzed at the onset of sleep or upon waking. Your mind is mentally awake, but you are physically asleep and paralyzed. It is a disorienting condition that can also cause terrifying hallucinations.

The effects of sleep paralysis are often associated with other symptoms such a sense of suffocation, decreased heart rate, or the presence of an evil person in the room.

While all of these symptoms sound terrifying, sleep paralysis is not dangerous and is an ordinary human condition. It’s a protection mechanism which prevents us from acting out our dreams as we sleep.

It’s important to learn to recognize the symptoms of sleep paralysis. It affects people in many different ways but some commonalities that people experience include:

Nightmare, Linda Braucht (20th C. American), Computer Graphics

  • An inability to move your limbs at the beginning of sleep or upon waking
  • Brief episodes of partial or complete skeletal paralysis
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations (people often sense an evil presence, feel a phantom touch, or hear an unidentifiable noise in the room)
  • A sense of breathlessness or chest pressure
  • Confusion
  • Helplessness
  • Fear

If you feel that you are experiencing sleep paralysis, try focusing on body movement. You may find that you are able to move a part of your body to force yourself to a fully waking state. Focusing on and controlling your breathing can be an excellent relaxation technique and learning some breathing techniques in advance may help you regain control during a sleep paralysis episode.

Understanding Narcolepsy

Unless you have actually dealt with someone who is diagnosed with narcolepsy, it is common to think of the disorder as excessive sleepiness during waking hours. Although this is a symptom of narcolepsy daytime sleepiness is not all the disorder entails and can actually be attributed to a number of separate sleep disorders. Narcolepsy is a rare disorder that plagues 1 out of every 2,000 people and is characterized by a mix of daytime sleepiness, bedtime hallucinations, cataplexy, and sleep paralysis. Unless you have the whole cornucopia of symptoms chances are you don’t have narcolepsy.

Bedtime hallucinations occur due to the continuation or early startup of the REM cycle of sleep bleeding into a waking state. Hypnogogic (before sleep) and hypnopompic (directly after sleep) hallucinations can seem very real since you are essentially seeing parts of the dreaming world in your bedroom right before or right after you fall asleep. These hallucinations are not necessarily specific to narcolepsy and happen to a lot of people at one time or another. They are typically visual hallucinations but can also be auditory or even tactile in nature.

The most clearly related symptom to narcolepsy, cataplexy, is found in 75% of narcolepsy patients and is a dead give away. Cataplexy occurs when the patient experiences a strong emotion which causes them to lose muscle control and go limp, often causing them to fall onto the ground. This symptom is often thought of as sporadically falling asleep but during a cataplexy episode the patient is in fact awake the entire time. The most common emotion associated with these types of episodes is laughter but embarrassment, anger and any other strong emotion can trigger this response.

The last symptom of sleep paralysis is narcolepsy which we have discussed at length in the past. Sleep paralysis occurs when a person wakes from REM sleep and is unable to move their extremities. This occurs when the signals from the brain that occur during REM sleep which temporarily paralyze your muscles to keep you from acting your dreams out continue into your waking state. This can often be very frightening and a person may continue this paralysis until some outside stimulus jars them from that state.

If all of these symptoms are not present it may not be safe to assume that it is narcolepsy. If it is in fact narcolepsy there are many treatments available that curb the effects of narcolepsy. Either way you should consult your doctor and see what options are available to you.