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.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Don't let sleep paralysis disrupt your normal sleep cycles. Knowing about its associated symptoms can help you get back to getting a good night's sleep. This is the first part of a two-part series.

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.

Before we continue, let’s get this out of the way right now! Despite the picture above, this article is NOT meant to scare anyone about this very real issue. It is important to bring it to everyone’s mind so that if you do experience it, you can take control away from the fear it may cause. Knowledge is power! Be strong and know that you’re going to be ok!

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.