8 mins

27 April 2022

What is Sleep Paralysis and How to Prevent It

If you’re here, you have probably had the frightening experience of waking up and feeling unable to move your body. Sometimes, it’s so bad that people complain they are unable to breathe during moments like this.  If you’re here to understand this further, read on below as you untangle the mysteries of Sleep Paralysis.

The NHS defines sleep paralysis as the inability to move or speak as you are wake up or fall asleep. This temporary loss of muscle function typically occurs when you are transitioning from being awake to asleep. While generally harmless, the feeling of being in this paralyzed state is frightening for many because of the feeling of helplessness.

When you are in the REM stage of sleep, your brain automatically paralyzes your body causing it to relax and be still. The brain does this to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Normally, when you are waking up the brain releases the body immediately from its paralysis. In some sleeping disorders, like Narcolepsy, the paralysis is prolonged into the state of wakefulness which causes our body to be unable to move even when you are already fully conscious. This should wear off within a few minutes and full control of your body should be regained.

However, sleep paralysis is also experienced by healthy individuals, not just those suffering from narcolepsy. Even though sleep paralysis does not pose significant risks, if it occurs regularly or is getting worse, medical help should be sought and a visit to the doctor’s office is needed.

There are two types of sleep paralysis. The main difference between the two is when they occur during our sleep:

  • if it occurs when you are falling asleep, it is hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis,
  • if it occurs as you are waking up, it is called hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.

It is possible to think about these two conditions as particular and rare states of consciousness, strictly connected with hallucinations.

In hypnagogic sleep paralysis, your body slowly relaxes because you are about to fall asleep. During this time, you become less aware of what is happening, so you do not notice the change in your own body. But, if you suddenly become aware, you will find that you are unable to speak or move during this time.

Hypnopompic sleep paralysis happened while you alternate between Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep. As mentioned, your body muscles are numb during REM sleep to allow us to dream safely by not acting it out. If your awake state of consciousness resurfaces before the REM cycle ends, you will feel paralyzed, unable to move or speak.

Sleep Paralysis is not usually worrisome, and it is not a medical emergency. But because of what happens during sleep paralysis, many people are afraid to experience this. Being familiar with what happens and knowing that these would not usually last more than 2 minutes, can help bring peace of mind and allay our fears.

The most common experience during sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak – hence, it is called paralysis. But there are other symptoms you may experience during an episode:

  • Feeling of someone or something pushing you down
  • Feeling heaviness on the chest area
  • Feeling like someone is looking at you or someone is in the room
  • Being afraid
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations – smelling, hearing, tasting, or feeling things when you are asleep

Others have also reported having symptoms like:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Choking
  • Sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Paranoia
  • Feeling as if you are going to die

An episode will usually last for about 2 minutes before you slowly regain control of your body and the paralysis disappears. You may be able to recall our experience after the episode.

When you experience sleep paralysis, you will find out that this will usually end on its own. Sleep paralysis may also stop when a person touches, moves, or jolts you awake. Exerting a really big effort to move and release your body from paralysis may also help end an episode.

Sources say that as many as four out of ten people may have sleep paralysis. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that this condition can be first noticed during the teenage years and occurs most often when you are in your 20s or 30s. The condition may also continue into our later years.

Sleep paralysis can affect anyone – man or woman. It can affect different age groups as well. Studies vary widely in estimating the number of people who have this. Estimates can vary from 5% to 40% of people who have this condition. However, if you have a relative who has it, you will be more likely to have it as well.

While anyone can experience sleep paralysis, lack of sleep, or a sleep schedule that often changes can make us more susceptible to experience this condition. Stress is also something you should take into account that can contribute to this experience. Sleep Paralysis may also be related to the following factors:

  • Sleeping on your back
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Sleep-related leg cramps
  • Narcolepsy
  • Use of medications to treat mental disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Insomnia

Ultimately, having poor sleep hygiene will increase your likelihood of having a sleep paralysis episode.

Medical attention is not usually needed for sleep paralysis. If you find yourself unable to move or speak a few minutes after waking up or while falling asleep, it may be an isolated case and there is no need to treat that condition. However, if you have any of the following experiences, you should go and see the doctor:

  • You feel worried and anxious about your symptoms
  • You are afraid to go to sleep at night
  • Your symptoms are keeping you up
  • You feel very tired during the day because of lack of sleep

How can you treat Sleep Paralysis?

Isolated sleep paralysis is often not treated. However, if it is recurring or if it is part of another underlying condition, like Narcolepsy, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat the underlying condition and not necessarily the sleep paralysis. Your doctor may also ask you to participate in a sleep study called polysomnography which can help your doctor diagnose your condition. Once your doctor has made a diagnosis, they may give you a variety of treatment options which can include medication or drug-free solutions like cognitive behavioral therapy to address any anxiety or stress brought about by your symptoms.

To prevent sleep paralysis or reduce its occurrence, lifestyle changes are needed. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is important for addressing sleep paralysis as well as your overall health. Some of the things you can do include:

  • Avoid or reduce stress
  • Get regular exercise, like yoga or even just breathing exercises, but avoid exercising close to bedtime
  • Get enough rest
  • Maintain a healthy and regular sleep schedule
  • Try different sleeping positions if you are a back sleeper
  • Understand certain medications you may be taking for other conditions that may potentially have sleep paralysis as a side effect
  • Avoid sleep interruption

It can be very scary to experience sleep paralysis and related hallucinations. It can feel as though sleep paralysis demons are out to get you and kill you while you are unable to help yourself. But there is no need for you to fight off these demons because there are steps you can take to prevent this from happening again. After reading this article you are now aware that this sleep paralysis is quite common and there is little to worry about. However, if this condition is preventing you from living your life and has become debilitating, be sure to see your doctor and ask for medical advice.

Our hope is that through this article, we were able to help you in finding some peace of mind and lessen your worries about sleep paralysis.

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