Sleep paralysis is a notorious sleeping disorder, which most sleep researchers categorize as a simple sign of your body’s inability to move smoothly through the various sleep stages.
It is relatively rare for sleep paralysis to build upon underlying psychiatric complications; the considerable terror around this condition stems from centuries of deeming it as an “evil presence.” The symptoms of sleep paralysis were often attributed to night demons in the past when it is actually a treatable scientific phenomenon.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
The voluntary muscles in the body do not move while sleeping after relaxation, preventing us from hurting ourselves by acting out dreams. Sometimes, a person may wake up with their body still in a relaxed state: a condition known as sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis typically occurs during the time between sleeping and waking. People with this condition may experience hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, which may be auditory, visual, or sensory and usually occur when a person is falling asleep or waking up.
Although sleep paralysis is not a serious life-threatening condition, it can lead to anxiety, especially when it occurs along with other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. This condition typically begins during adolescence and may become more frequent during the 20s and 30s. Sleep paralysis affects about 7.6% of individuals during their life.
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Causes of Sleep Paralysis
People with sleep paralysis experience a disturbed body transition to or from rapid eye movement (REM), with their sleep cycle being out of sync with their brain. The body alternates between non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM).
Although the person’s consciousness stays awake, their body is in a paralyzed state of sleep. One normal REM-NREM cycle lasts about 90 minutes, with most of the sleeping time spent in NREM, where the body relaxes.
During REM, the eyes move around more quickly, but the body is in a relaxed state. Dreams occur in REM. During this stage, the brain areas that detect possible threats are overly sensitive and in a heightened state.
Certain factors that can aggravate the risk of sleep paralysis include the following:
- Family history of sleep paralysis
- Irregular sleeping patterns due to shift work, jet lag, or others
Sleep paralysis may also be a symptom of underlying medical complications, such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Obstructive sleep apnea
Although sleep paralysis is not deemed a medical emergency, it is essential to be familiar with the symptoms to rectify them. An episode of sleep paralysis is commonly characterized by an inability to speak or move and may last for a few seconds or even two minutes. Sleep paralysis may also include the following disturbing symptoms:
- Feeling as if someone or something is in the room
- Feeling as if someone or something is pushing you down
- Feeling fearful
- Hypnopompic and hypnagogic experiences (HHEs), commonly termed as hallucinations right before, during, or after sleep
Other common symptoms may include the following:
- Laborious breathing
- Muscle aches
- A feeling as if you are about to die
Sleep paralysis episodes typically end on their own or when a person moves or touches you. Individuals suffering from such episodes may be aware of their surroundings but unable to speak or move during an episode.
Sleep paralysis episodes are temporary, and individuals are able to recall the details of each episode after it ends. In rare cases, some people may experience strange hallucinations that cause fear or anxiety, but remember these are mere hallucinations without any basis in reality.
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Who Can Develop Sleep Paralysis?
As many as four out of every ten people may suffer from sleep paralysis. Commonly developed during one’s teenage years, this condition affects men and women equally and may even run in families. Certain other factors that may be associated with sleep paralysis include the following:
- Sleeping on your back
- Lack of adequate sleep
- Substance abuse
- Changing sleep schedule
- Use of certain medications, such as those for ADHD
- Mental conditions such as bipolar disorder or stress
- Other sleep complications, such as nighttime leg cramps
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Treating Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis typically resolves within a few minutes without causing serious physical trauma or effects. However, the experience itself can be quite traumatic and unsettling.
Sleep paralysis that takes place in isolation does not usually require treatment. However, it is important to consult a medical professional or sleep specialist if the patient exhibits signs of narcolepsy, especially if the symptoms interfere with their work and home life.
In such a case, a medical professional may prescribe particular drugs that can help manage your sleep paralysis if it is caused by narcolepsy. Some of the most commonly prescribed medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and stimulants.
SSRs generally help control and manage symptoms of narcolepsy, but your doctor may also prescribe polysomnography to help make an accurate diagnosis if you are experiencing symptoms of both narcolepsy and sleep paralysis.
A polysomnography is a sleep study requiring an overnight stay at a sleep center or hospital where a technician evaluates your vital signs when sleeping. To do so, the technician may place electrodes on your scalp, chin, or the outer edge of your eyelids to keep an account of the electrical activity in your brain waves and muscles. They may also record your heart rate and breathing. In certain cases, a camera may keep a record of your movements while sleeping.
The most effective way to deal with sleep paralysis is improving your sleep hygiene and religiously following a carefully mitigated bedtime routine, which typically includes ensuring that your room is dark, at a low temperature, and quiet. It is also pivotal to avoid blue light before sleeping, as it can help you get a sound night’s sleep.
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How Can You Prevent Sleep Paralysis?
There are a few lifestyle changes you can undertake to minimize the frequency and symptoms of sleep paralysis episodes, some of which are as follows:
- Avoiding sleeping on your back and sleeping on your side
- Reducing stress in your life
- Understanding the interaction and side effects of different medications on your body so you can avoid potential side effects, which may also include sleep paralysis
- Keep a record of the medications you take for any medical conditions.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
Some other tips you can follow to reduce your chances of having a sleep paralysis episode include the following:
- Breathing exercises and yoga can help calm you down and even help you regain a sense of agency over your body
- Trauma counseling
- Antidepressants if you have a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety
- Antidepressants can effectively reduce your sleep paralysis episodes as they reduce the number of dreams you have.
Head over to SleepRx to consult American-board certified and specialist-trained sleep specialists about any sleep disturbances you may face! You can consult a sleep apnea specialist or undertake a sleep apnea test or sleep study if you exhibit symptoms of this disorder.
You can also make an appointment for an at home sleep study, home sleep apnea test, or even an online sleep apnea test if you do not wish to leave the comfort of your home.