Sleep paralysis is actually more common than people think. Waking up and not being able to move was an unexplained phenomenon as late as the 17th century, but in today’s world, we know it as sleep paralysis or sleep atonia. You wake in the night, fully conscious but unable to move or speak. Some people say it’s like feeling there’s an intruder in their room. Others wake up gasping for air, unable to breathe due to intense pressure on their chest. These experiences are caused by the body being temporarily trapped between dreaming and consciousness. These otherwise dramatic situations are nothing more than a disruption of the sleep cycle.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
It is the sensation of waking unable to move or speak. There isn’t a set time when it occurs but it does happen during the REM cycle when people experience dreams. When sleeping, the body goes through different phases of sleep. The first 3 are during NREM, or non-rapid eye movement. During this time, the body settles down and begins to restore itself. Breathing becomes more rhythmic. Enter REM, the dreaming phase. In this period, neurotransmitters called glycine are produced in order to “paralyze” the body, preventing voluntary movement. This paralysis or sleep atonia takes place to prevent a person from acting out their dreams in their sleep; a defense mechanism to prevent harm to that person. Normally, a person sleeps through this cycle, but those who wake experience temporary paralysis that at most will last for a few minutes. The person experiencing this sensation may feel one of three sensations known as:
- The Incubus
- The Intruder
- Vestibular Motor Sensation
This leaves the awakened person with the sensation that something is sitting on their chest. The person wakes, feeling pressure on their chest or abdomen, even an impression of choking. This is due to the REM cycle, where breathing is reduced to shallow, even breaths. Upon waking, this may be misinterpreted as a lack of air. Hence, the panicked, gasping breaths.
The person will feel as if there is a presence in the room. People who experience this sensation state that they see and/or hear someone enter their room or window. This person is actually experiencing strong hallucinations due to sleep paralysis.
Vestibular Motor Sensations
Those who experience vestibular motor sensations feel like they’re flying, floating, or spinning. These individuals report having an out-of-body experience; feeling as if they are floating above and observing everything around them. Out of the three, this is a more positive sensation since this phenomenon focuses more on the person themselves rather than their surroundings and may not produce fear.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis occurs because of disruption in transitioning to REM cycle. Symptoms can vary, but may include the following:
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Poor sleep hygiene
- Mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder or anxiety
Sleep paralysis is a common occurrence that most people experience at least once in their lives. Studies show that it can happen to anyone. According to Web MD, 4 out of 10 people may experience this phenomenon at least once in their lifetime. It most likely begins during the teen years (ages 14-17), and occurs more often in individuals in their 20s and 30s. Few cases report it continuing on in later years. Because it occurs close to REM sleep, it usually occurs a few hours after falling asleep and before waking, but there is no set time.
Stress plays a significant role in the quality of sleep you get each night. It can affect you physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s important to take necessary steps in order to manage stress. These methods can include meditation, exercise, and psychotherapy in more extreme circumstances. Doing so will reduce strain and allow a more solid sleep.
This can be the result of a poor sleep schedule. Adults generally need 6-8 hours. To combat irregular sleep, start by setting a regular schedule, including weekends and holidays. This will allow your body to adjust to a consistent rhythm and produce uninterrupted sleep.
Poor Sleep Hygiene
The biggest culprit behind poor sleep hygiene may be electronic devices, especially in today’s high-tech world. Make sure that you keep away from electronic devices 1 hour before bed and try to keep them out of the bedroom. Also, take steps to wind down towards the end of the day. For example, avoid consuming heavy meals and caffeine 2 hours before bed, and when napping during the day, don’t nap longer than 90 minutes and never after 3 PM.
Mental Health Issues
In some extreme cases, sleep paralysis can be caused by mental health problems such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression. Those who have a history of trauma may also experience more extreme hallucinations with intense fear. Best practice involves recording everything in a sleep journal and speaking with a doctor.
Sleep Paralysis Treatments
Though there is no specific treatment, the best way to prevent sleep paralysis is by practicing good sleep hygiene, following a regular sleep schedule, and managing stress. This includes:
- Try not to nap too late into your day and keep naps no longer than 90 minutes
- Move electronic devices away from the bed
- If you exercise in the evening, try not to do so within 2 hours of bedtime
- Consider sleeping on your side instead of your back
- Sleeping in a dark room is best; block/turn off any possible light sources
- Aim for a consistent 6-8 hours of sleep each night
- Try to avoid caffeine before bed
- Be cautious of what you eat and when you eat. Eating 2 hours before bedtime is not recommended
- Ensure a comfortable sleep environment (bedding, pajamas, room temperature, etc.)
- Use muscle relaxation and breathing techniques before bed
Practicing these methods can greatly reduce the risk of sleep paralysis These methods help regulate your sleep and provide a smooth transition through the different sleep cycles. Typically, people who experience sleep paralysis are either not getting enough sleep or sleeping excessively.
If the condition exists or is negatively impacting your life, we recommend talking with a medical professional. Also, we encourage you to keep a sleep journal to track your sleep patterns and help medical professionals properly diagnose the problem. In some cases, doctors may suggest a sleep specialist which may involve an overnight sleep study or a Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT), which will record patterns while you nap during the day.
Though it may be uncomfortable and unpleasant, remember sleep paralysis is non-life threatening. Some may experience more extreme sensations than others. For example, if a person has a history of trauma, they might witness intense hallucinations that may involve someone they know. In other cases, some patients may be prescribed antidepressants, even when not depressed to help prevent waking during the REM cycle.
To review, sleep paralysis is a common experience. While some of the sensations that follow from waking may seem extreme, they are in fact normal and non-life threatening. It occurs due to breaks in the sleep cycle when transitioning from NREM to REM. People who experience this phenomenon are fully conscious but are unable to move or speak. This temporary event can last up to a few minutes at most. It can be broken by trying to move fingers or toes or being spoken to or touched. The best way to treat this incident is to sleep regularly, practice good sleep hygiene, and manage stress. This will prevent disruptions in sleep cycles and result in a solid night’s sleep.