Should You Worry About Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep Stages & Paralysis
During REM, the body goes into a state of paralysis known as REM atonia. This is a normal part of the sleep stage, when major muscle groups and most voluntary muscles are paralyzed. One important function of this paralysis may be to protect the body from injury during sleep. REM is a sleep stage when much active dreaming occurs. Without the paralyzing effects of REM atonia, we might act out physically in response to our dreams. In certain sleep disorders, including REM Behavior Disorder, the normal paralysis of REM sleep doesn’t work as it should, and people act out physically—sometimes aggressively and violently—in sleep.
Sleep scientists believe that sleep paralysis may occur when the transitions in and out of REM sleep and other sleep stages don’t go smoothly. The paralysis that is typically confined to REM sleep spills over to other sleep stages—and if you wake, you become aware of your body’s paralysis, and the frightening feeling of being unable to move or to speak. Sleep paralysis may also include hallucinations. People often describe feeling a ghost-like presence in the room with them, as well as feelings of terror and foreboding. These hallucinations can include strange sounds and even smells, along with sensations of falling or flying. Although the mechanisms of breathing aren’t impaired by sleep paralysis, people sometimes feel breathless, and often feel a weighty pressure on the chest. The experience of it can be terrifying, especially the first time it occurs.
If you’ve ever experienced this condition, you’re not alone. The phenomenon is actually relatively common, and can occur at any point in life. Estimates vary widely, but as many as 65% of people may suffer an episode at some point in their lives. Sometimes the phenomenon occurs only once or twice in a person’s life, while other people may have more frequent and regular encounters with sleep paralysis. Certain people are more at risk for this frightening sleep disturbance. People with disrupted sleep cycles, people who’ve experienced trauma, or who suffer from anxiety or depression may be more likely to suffer episodes.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
This condition occurs most often in people in their twenties and thirties, but it can also happen later in life.
Sleep paralysis is the inability to move your body when you’re falling asleep or waking up.
It doesn’t affect your sleep or your overall health.
When you’re asleep, your brain tells your muscles to relax and stay still. In sleep paralysis, this also occurs while you’re awake.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that sleep paralysis is a common sleep problem.
Estimates of how many people have it vary from 5 to 40 percent of the population.
While most people first experience sleep paralysis in their teenage years, the condition is most common when people are in their twenties and thirties, and may continue later in life.
Some people experience sleep paralysis just once in their life, while others experience it many times.
Sleep paralysis can be a sign of narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes extreme drowsiness during the day and can cause people to suddenly fall asleep.
What Happens in Sleep Paralysis
Episodes of sleep paralysis can last for seconds or minutes.
During an episode, you’ll still be able to breathe normally, and you’ll be aware of everything that is happening.
The following symptoms may occur:
- Inability to talk
- Inability to move your arms, legs, body, or head
- Hallucinations that cause you to see, hear, or feel things that aren’t really there
The episode may end on its own, when someone touches or speaks to you, or if you try very hard to move.
Causes of Sleep Paralysis
Having a relative with sleep paralysis may put you at greater risk for the condition.
Other factors that may contribute to the condition include:
- Lack of sleep
- An erratic sleep schedule
- Sleeping on your back
- Taking certain medications
- Abusing drugs or alcohol
- Having leg cramps related to sleep
- Having bipolar disorder
- Having another medical condition
Sleep Paralysis Treatment
Once your doctor determines the cause of your sleep paralysis, treatment can begin.
Treatments may include:
- Getting six to eight hours of sleep a night (if you currently sleep less)
- Medications to treat bipolar disorder or another mental health disorder
- Treatment for underlying conditions, such as leg cramps
- Antidepressants to reduce or eliminate dream sleep, if you have narcolepsy (even if you’re not depressed)
Have you ever dozed off for a 30-minute nap and woken up with a demon perched on your chest, pinning you to your bed?
English folklore once dubbed such nocturnal visitations as simply “nightmares.” Today, however, the phenomenon is called sleep paralysis — or being mentally aware while falling asleep or waking up, yet totally unable to move. These episodes may last only a few minutes but can include disquieting side effects such as an intense pressure felt on the sleeper’s chest, the sensation of being watched by an intruder and other sensory hallucinations.
Sleep paralysis “occurs when features of REM sleep, specifically muscle paralysis, continue into our waking lives,” said Alice Gregory, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University of London. (REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep is the stage of sleep when dreaming takes place.)
Though scientists have an understanding of what happens during sleep paralysis, the cause of the condition remains unclear.
So, in a recent review of studies, published in June in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, Gregory and her colleagues analyzed 42 sleep paralysis studies to determine the most common characteristics linked with the mysterious condition. In the review, the researchers compared the frequency of sleep paralysis episodes with dozens of variables, including age, sex, ethnicity, diet, income, caffeine intake, genetics, past stress, “hypnotizability” and IQ.
Many of these factors showed negligible or inconclusive links, but there was little doubt that poor sleep quality was associated with sleep paralysis episodes. Broadly speaking, the less restful a person’s sleep was, the more likely they were to experience sleep paralysis, the review found.
“Overall, it seems that certain factors associated with disrupted sleep are also linked to sleep paralysis,” Gregory said. “For example, disturbed sleep is common amongst those who use substances, experience stress and report psychiatric difficulties.”
Across multiple studies, individuals who woke up repeatedly during the night were significantly more likely to experience paralysis episodes than sound sleepers were. In several studies that looked at sleep duration, individuals who slept for less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours at a time were most likely to experience sleep paralysis upon waking. Napping was also linked to increased chances of sleep paralysis episodes.
“This makes sense when we think about the likely mechanisms underlying sleep paralysis,” Gregory said, which occurs when a person is essentially caught between REM sleep and wakefulness.
Stress and anxiety may also be linked with a person’s likelihood to experience sleep paralysis, the review found. Patients who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed significantly higher rates of sleep paralysis across multiple studies compared with patients without PTSD. To a lesser extent, people who were prone to social anxiety and general stress were also more likely to experience sleep paralysis episodes than those without these conditions. And several studies found a link between sleep paralysis and regular nightmares.
“It could be that stress causes sleep paralysis, but equally that sleep paralysis leads to stress,” Gregory said. “We couldn’t really tease apart cause and effect.” Future long-term studies will help clarify what comes first: sleep problems or anxiety, she added.
The truth is out there?
Descriptions of sleep paralysis have appeared in global folklore for centuries, often linking the symptoms to visits from supernatural creatures such as witches, ghosts, genies and a particularly lusty breed of demon called incubi. In some more recent cases reported in the United States, episodes of sleep paralysis have also been interpreted as alien abductions.
Previous studies have looked into whether people’s cultural backgrounds — specifically, how strongly their cultures fear and mythologize sleep paralysis — translate to actual sleep paralysis episodes.
The new review looked at three such studies that examined “paranormal and mystic beliefs” as a possible factor in people’s sleep paralysis episodes. Of these studies, two found that people who experienced sleep paralysis were more likely to have supernatural beliefs than people who didn’t experience sleep paralysis. But overall, supernatural notions appear to be less involved in sleep paralysis compared with sleep quality and stress, the researchers said.
Originally published on Live Science.
Gareth Fletcher, 32, regularly had sleep paralysis when he was a teenager. Although it has virtually stopped, he still experiences it very occasionally.
“I first experienced sleep paralysis when I was 16.
“I remember it vividly. I went to bed one night as usual, but at some point I woke up and was unable to move a muscle. I was conscious and aware that I was in my bed, but my entire body was paralysed.
“It may have only lasted a matter of seconds, but the experience was terrifying. There was a ringing noise in my ears that seemed to get louder, and no matter how hard I struggled, I couldn’t move. I had a feeling of immense panic, and an urgent need to move my arms and legs.
“Then suddenly I could move again. While this was a great relief, I was still scared as I had no idea what had just happened.
“The same thing happened again a few nights later, and then it began to happen regularly. Often, it would happen a couple of times in the same night.
“I became nervous about going to sleep – worried that every time I went to bed I’d wake up and be unable to move. Even though the paralysis was only temporary, it was very frightening.
“Often, I would wake up suddenly after having a vivid dream. Sometimes this was an unpleasant dream, which made the experience even scarier.
“I didn’t tell anybody about it at first. This was partly because I began to doubt that it was really happening. I thought perhaps I was dreaming it, and although it seemed very real at the time, perhaps it was just a nightmare in which I couldn’t move.
“Also, it happened as I was falling asleep early in the night. By the time I’d woken up in the morning, it didn’t seem to matter so much and I tried to forget it had happened.
“Then one day at school, I overheard a friend talking about a documentary he’d seen about this very phenomenon. It was the first time I’d heard the term ‘sleep paralysis’, and it perfectly described what happened to me – although my friend mentioned that the people on TV had also felt a presence in the room and a pressure on their chest when they woke up, which I hadn’t had.
“Knowing that it had a name was a relief. I told my parents about it, and my dad said it happened to him once when he was younger. My mum has since said it once happened to her too.
“My mum then told our doctor, who said it was nothing to worry about and that little was really known about it. The doctor did say she thought it may be linked to stress.
“The sleep paralysis kept happening, but I no longer felt so panicked by it. It was still very unpleasant and I had a desperate need to move every time I woke up, but I just told myself that it was nothing sinister and I’d be able to move in a few seconds.
“And then it stopped happening, almost overnight, when I went to university. It’s odd, but it seemed to happen only when I was in my bed at home. After I left, it virtually disappeared.
“It does happen now, but only extremely rarely. It can still be frightening, mainly because of the disorientation you feel when you suddenly wake up and can’t move. But knowing what’s happening and that it’s nothing to worry about makes it bearable, and I’m usually able to relax and get back to sleep quickly.”