Understanding Sleep Paralysis

Sleeping: one of the most basic human functions necessary for survival. Nightmares: the most common stress triggers an adult can endure while sleeping. Have you ever actually thought about how the body functions while sleeping? Sleep allows the body to relax to engage in recovery, allowing for better physical and mental performance. As you fall asleep, thousands of neurons switch from a wakeful state to the sleeping state, your breathing reaches its lowest state, your heart rate begins to slow down, your muscles relax, your brain waves accelerate for vivid dreaming, and your body’s internal clock regulates. What happens when your brain and mind are fully conscious, but the rest of your body isn’t? Sleep paralysis.

  1. 1. Circadian Sleep Cycle & REM Sleep

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    In order to understand the factors of sleep paralysis, you must understand how the body functions within the Circadian Cycle; the sleep/wake cycle. Your circadian rhythm is basically the 24 hour internal clock, running in the background of your brain like a silent soundtrack that cycles between sleepiness and alertness. For most humans, the ideal cycle is 7-9 hours of sleep followed by 15-17 hours of wakefulness. You also must note how REM sleep fits in. REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep occurs during intervals of this cycle characterized by the rapid movements of the eyes, allowing for intense dreaming. 

  2. 2. What is Sleep Paralysis?

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    Sleep paralysis is identified by a loss of muscle control, or atonia, that happens just after falling asleep or waking up. It is categorized as a type of parasomnia, which are abnormal behaviors during sleep. Atonia typically occurs during REM sleep to avoid the possibility of you acting out your dreams, however; under normal circumstances, you won’t be conscious enough to be aware of this paralytic state. With sleep paralysis, the person's brain essentially wakes up before the body can respond, meaning while the brain is conscious, the body is still paralyzed. In addition to this inability to move and the inability to make a sound, most suffer intense hallucinations and feelings of suffocation during episodes. 

  3. 3. What Does Sleep Paralysis Feel Like?

    During an episode, a person feels awake, but are fully aware of the inability to move and are unable to speak. An estimated 80% of these episodes involve hallucinations. The most common hallucinations seen are intruder hallucinations, which involve a dangerous presence within the room; chest pressure hallucinations, which incites the feeling of suffocation or drowning in air; and vestibular-motor hallucinations, which can include movement such as flying, being thrown, or out-of-body sensations. Many cases even claim to have seen demons or ghosts of passed loved ones. An estimated 90% of reported sleep paralysis cases have been associated with fear while a minority have be associated with blissful encounters. On average, an episode can last anywhere from a few seconds to around 20-25 minutes. Some may end on their own as a regular dream while others are interrupted by another person’s touch or voice. 

  4. 4. What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

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    Many individuals can experience sleep paralysis without any indication of a sleep disorder, some just experience it randomly. Those who suffer with certain illnesses are at higher risk for experiencing this terror though. These groups include those with insomnia, anxiety disorders, narcolepsy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, sleep apnea, and PTSD. There is no specific scientific evidence that sleep paralysis is hereditary, but it has been seen to run in families. Several cultures believe there’s distinct reasonings for why this happens. In Cambodia, sleep paralysis is believed to be a spiritual attack, meaning you’re being haunted by your own mind. CRAZY RIGHT?

  5. 5. Can Sleep Paralysis Be Treated?

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    Isolated incidents usually do not require any type of treatment, however; if you suffer from an underlying disorder where sleep paralysis is linked, certain drugs and selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed. In most cases, if these attacks are detrimental to your daily life, some doctors may prescribe stimulants to help you stay awake during the day and a sleep aid to help you sleep peacefully throughout the night. Most doctors use a polysomnography, which is a sleep study requiring an overnight stay at a hospital with electrodes attached to your chin, scalp, and the outer edge of your eyelids. The electrodes measure activity in your muscles and brain waves. These are used to diagnose the paralytic stages and figure out how long your symptoms last. It is also believed that avoiding blue light and ensuring that the room temperature is kept low at night to avoid sleep paralysis is very beneficial. 

  6. 6. Can I Avoid Sleep Paralysis?

    In some cases, it appears to be random and many never experience it at all. If you do have frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, there are several steps you can take to avoid them. Some can be avoided with the help of lifestyle changes such as reducing persistent stress in your life, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, exercising regularly, yoga and breathing exercises, therapy, and trauma counseling. 

Sleep paralysis, while it sounds terrifying; is more common than you may think. Sleep is one of the most important resting stages our body needs to function and when it is interrupted, there’s quite a quarrel between the body and mind. If this happens to you, don’t be alarmed or afraid. Sometimes, it’s just random and is never experienced again. Others may have episodes more consistently. Now that you have a more complex understanding of these events, hopefully you’ll be able to figure out why and how to prevent it. For now, sleep tight and sweet dreams.