Sleep Disorder Spotlight: Sleep Paralysis
There is nothing quite as scary as trying to determine if what is happening around you is real or if you are still dreaming, especially if you think you are awake, but find you cannot move. For people who suffer from sleep paralysis, this sensation occurs with frightening frequency. If you don’t understand what is happening, is can feel like a waking nightmare and often causes people to struggle against unseen bonds and attempt to scream or shout only to find that no sound comes out.
Sleep paralysis is very similar to something everyone experiences during certain stages of sleep. As your body enters REM sleep, several neurotransmitters are essentially shut-off which results in sleep atonia, a state where your body is almost entirely paralyzed. This is why your brain can be as active as it is when you are awake but your body stays put safely in your bed. If this process doesn’t work properly you can experience sleepwalking episodes or suffer from REM behavior disorder where your body acts out what is happening in your brain. Sleep paralysis is the opposite problem, when your body remains in this paralyzed state even after you have awakened.
An estimated 8% of the population suffers from this sleep disorder which is one of the parasomnias. Anyone can experience sleep paralysis but those with Narcolepsy and Cataplexy are more likely than others to also have sleep paralysis. In many cases, an episode of sleep paralysis is accompanied by hypnogogic hallucinations. Researchers believe that there may be a genetic basis for the condition that increases the likelihood that it is hereditary. It is believed to result from a miscommunication within the brain that allows the “all clear to wake up” signal to be sent before the “let the body start moving normal” signal goes out. Sleep paralysis episodes can last from several seconds to several minutes and can be frightening enough to incite panic.
How Can You Tell if You Have Sleep Paralysis
The primary way you can tell you have this condition is that you wake up and can open your eyes but find yourself unable to move or talk. You may have experienced this sensation before and chalked it up to a strange dream. You may feel as though someone is sitting on your chest and preventing you from moving. It can also feel as though you are bound tightly to the bed since you are unable to move anything except your eyes. You may struggle, try to scream, attempt to raise your arm or even turn your head but despite all efforts you cannot break the invisible hold that is preventing all movement.
In addition to being unable to move, you may also experience vivid and very disconcerting hallucinations. These hallucinations can be visual, auditory, or even tactile. Commonly reported hallucinations include the presence of an intruder in your room, an ongoing physical or sexual assault, and the sensation of having an out of body experience.
Who Suffers from Sleep Paralysis
On average, about 6-8% of the general population experiences this parasomnia, but there is some evidence that more than half of us will experience at least one episode of sleep paralysis over the course of our lives. People with certain sleep disorders like narcolepsy are more likely to also have sleep paralysis as are people with panic disorders and other mental health conditions. The combination of sleep paralysis and hynogogic hallucinations may explain some anecdotal accounts of unusual or impossible occurrences like alien abductions and hauntings or ghost sightings.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis
As previously explained, the primary cause of sleep paralysis is a miscommunication between the brain and the body that allows you to wake up before the paralysis that kept you curled up in bed while you slept wears off. Scientists have not been able to identify what causes this miscommunication but they have identified some factors that seem to increase the likelihood of a sleep paralysis episode in someone without an underlying sleep disorder or mental health condition. These factors include sleeping on your back, an increase in your stress level, significant life changes, pairing sleep deprivation with too much alcohol.
How is Sleep Paralysis Treated
The most effective treatment for sleep paralysis is education and improved sleep hygiene. Simply understanding what is happening can help decrease the fear and panic caused by a sleep paralysis episode and the accompanying hallucinations. Additionally, many sleep paralysis suffers see a decrease in the number of episodes when their sleep hygiene is improved. This means going to bed and getting up at a consistent time every day, following the same routine before bed, and avoiding things like caffeine, exercise, fatty foods, and electronics in the hours leading up to bedtime. However, anyone who experiences frequent episodes of sleep paralysis should discuss this problem with their doctor and be checked for an underlying condition like narcolepsy.