What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a relatively common sleep disorder affecting up to 40 percent of the adult population at some point in their lives. It is an unusual phenomenon where you are fully awake but experience complete paralysis of your muscles; it usually occurs when you are trying to get to sleep but can also happen just after awakening.
Sleep paralysis can be scary. People through the years have identified with the fear that sleep paralysis means you are in the presence of something evil or dangerous. People who feel they are being abducted by aliens are often just simply having episodes of sleep paralysis. Rather than being an alien abduction victim, a person with sleep paralysis is having an imbalance in their transitioning from one sleep state to another. Nevertheless, sleep paralysis can be terrifying. Episodes of sleep paralysis can last for just a few seconds or even a couple of minutes, during which you find that you cannot speak or move your muscles. You may feel as if you aren’t able to breathe and that you have a great pressure on your chest or that someone is choking you.
Some people with sleep paralysis have it as an isolated condition that comes and goes over time. Other people with sleep paralysis also suffer from another sleep disorder, such as narcolepsy, in which you fall asleep during the day at inappropriate times.
Why does sleep paralysis happen?
Sleep paralysis is related to REM sleep, which is the time you are sleeping and are having most of your dreams. During a REM sleep state, you experience rapid eye movements and your brain sends a signal to the muscles of your body to temporarily paralyze them so that you don’t act out your dreams. Sleep paralysis happens because the signal to paralyze your muscles is present but you aren’t really in REM sleep but are, in fact, completely awake and unable to move. The same pattern of muscle paralysis (except for the muscles that keep you breathing) that normally occurs only in REM sleep is happening after you have awakened. If you are trying to induce sleep paralysis, you can read about it here on how to induce sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis causes
The following conditions could be causing your sleep paralysis:
When you are sleep deprived
Sleep deprivation for whatever reason can predispose you to developing sleep paralysis.
If you are a teen or young adult, you are more likely to have episodes of sleep paralysis.
If you have irregular times of sleep, such as when you shift your work hours or go to sleep at different times of the day or night, you are more likely to experience sleep paralysis.
Patients with narcolepsy have a greater risk of having episodes of sleep paralysis.
Having relatives with sleep paralysis
If sleep paralysis also affects other family members, it is more likely to affect you, too.
Having a great deal of stress
Excess stress in your life can contribute to having episodes of sleep paralysis.
Having bipolar disorder
If you suffer from this mental condition, sleep paralysis is more likely.
Sleeping on your back
If you tend to sleep on your back rather than on your stomach or side, sleep paralysis is more likely to occur.
Taking medications/stimulants for ADHD
People who take stimulants for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are more likely to develop episodes of sleep paralysis.
Using drugs or alcohol
These substances can interfere with normal sleep patterns so that you are more prone to getting sleep paralysis.
Two types of sleep paralysis
There are two types of sleep paralysis which happen two times during the sleep-wake cycle in which sleep paralysis usually happens. These are just before you are going to sleep and just when you are trying to wake up. The first type of sleep paralysis occurs as you are trying to fall asleep and it is called hypnagogic sleep paralysis or predormital sleep paralysis. The second type of sleep paralysis happens when you are trying to wake up and it is called hypnopompic sleep paralysis or sometimes postdormital sleep paralysis. The symptoms of both types of sleep paralysis are basically the same. In both cases, your body has gone into the phase of REM sleep and has responded by being paralyzed but your mind is not asleep and you become aware of the fact that you can’t move or sleep. In the case of hypnagogic sleep paralysis, your body prematurely goes into “REM sleep” but your mind has not yet fallen asleep.
Postdormital sleep paralysis
During postdormital sleep paralysis, your brain has awakened but the signal to move your muscles again has not yet happened so you are paralyzed while being awake. Postdormital sleep paralysis can last for just a few seconds or even a couple of minutes and usually happens when the person becomes aware before the REM cycle is finished. And that’s when you may notice you cannot speak or move your muscles.
Sleep Paralysis symptoms
There is no specific test for sleep paralysis and just having the symptoms of being paralyzed while you are awake is enough to make the diagnosis. Also, having episodes that last from only few seconds to a few minutes can be another symptom of sleep paralysis. It can cause sleep deprivation symptoms during the day such as feeling sleepy during daytime hours, having poor concentration at work or school, or becoming more forgetful during the day. While sleep paralysis is not dangerous and many people learn to live with it, others can become very anxious when trying to go to sleep.
Sleep Paralysis diagnosis
If sleep paralysis interferes with your getting a good night’s sleep or if you are particularly anxious about your symptoms, it is time to see a doctor for further investigation to diagnose and manage your condition. Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and might ask you to keep a sleep diary in which you document when you fall asleep, when you wake up, and episodes of sleep paralysis. From this diary, the doctor may be able to find a clue as to why you are experiencing these uncomfortable symptoms.
Your doctor may inquire as to whether or not sleep paralysis runs in your family. In order to make sure you don’t have another sleep disorder causing the episodes of sleep paralysis, your doctor may recommend you undergo a sleep study. During the sleep study, you will sleep at a sleep laboratory for a night and your REM and non-REM states of sleep can be documented. You may even have an actual episode of sleep paralysis during the sleep study, which will clinch the diagnosis for you.
Sleep Paralysis treatment
Once you understand what is going on, you may elect not to have any treatment for your condition. You will recognize times when you are having an episode but will be less stressed by it because you know what is happening. If sleep paralysis is still interfering with your day to day living, there are treatments available to you.
Try to get more sleep
Your doctor may ask that you try and get more sleep at night—at least 6-9 hours of sleep every night. The improved sleep habit will lessen the episodes of sleep paralysis.
There are antidepressants available that can regulate your sleep better so you don’t suffer from erratic sleep habits.
Mental Health Professional
If you have an emotional or psychiatric reason behind your sleep paralysis, you can see a mental health professional to have this underlying psychiatric problem treated. People who have narcolepsy or nocturnal leg cramps may wish to have these treated so as to decrease the frequency of nighttime sleep paralysis.
It’s important to recognize that sleep paralysis is not dangerous and that nothing untoward will happen to you when you have these episodes. Sometimes, just knowing that is enough to make it easier to have this disorder.