Imagine, you are just about to fall asleep and you start to count sheep in your head when all of a sudden you feel pressure on your chest and you sense a presence in the room. You cannot move a muscle but you can see your surroundings and are awake and alert. This is sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is momentary alertness but the loss of voluntary muscle movement that occurs when you are just about to fall asleep or when you’re just waking up from sleep. It can last anywhere from 20 seconds toa few minutes and it affects about 8% of the general population.
Some of the common sensations and emotions associated with sleep paralysis are an awareness of your surroundings but the inability to move, a sense of physical weight and pressure on the chest, difficulty breathing or a choking feeling, hallucinations or a sensed presence, and an overwhelming sense of fear or dread. Some people even describe hearing footsteps getting closer, seeing intruders, demons, or spirits, and feeling as if they are about to die. Although there is no physical danger to the person experiencing sleep paralysis.
They cannot pull themselves out of it and must wait for it to pass. Sleep paralysis is different from nightmares or night terrors in that the brain is awake but the body is in its sleep state and thus cannot move. What is most interesting about sleep paralysis is that it dates back to the 10th century and is prevalent in all ethnicities. In fact, people from many cultures have used sleep paralysis as a way to explain supernatural events and beings such as witchcraft, ghosts, and alien abduction.
Now, let’s go into detail about what sleep paralysis really is. There are two types of sleep paralysis: hypnagogic and hypnopompic. These two terms refer to a difference in the time at which sleep paralysis occurs. Hypnagogic, also known as preorbital,is when sleep paralysis occurs at sleep onset or just before falling asleep. On the other hand, hypnopompic, also known as postdigital, refers to sleep paralysis that occurs just after waking up at the transition from sleep to awakening.
In order to understand how sleep paralysis occurs, we have to understand what REM sleep is. During sleep, your brain cycles through five different phases: stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4, and stage 5, which is called the rapid eye movement stage or REM for short. A REM sleep cycle consists of25% of your sleep, which may occur several times throughout the night since your sleep cycle is repeated. REM is important because this is when dreaming occurs and when your body becomes energized.
During REM, the signals are sent to your spinal cord and motor neurons to shut off movement creating a temporary inability to move the muscles of your arms and legs. This serves as a protective measure to prevent you from injuring yourself or others while you dream. Now that we have an understanding of what REM sleep is let’s talk about its importance to sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is thought to occur due to an error in the flip-flop switch controlling REM sleep.
REM sleep is thought to work as a switch between two stages: REM on, when REM occurs, and REMoff, when it does not. This mechanism allows for smooth transitions into and out of REM sleep. This REM switch works in opposition to the wake-sleep switch. Normally, REM occurs at the same time you are asleep. However, when sleep paralysis occurs the neurons controlling the wake side of the wake-sleep switch and the neurons controlling the REM off the side of the REM switch are weakened.
This allows the REM on neurons to prevent muscle movement while the body is somewhat awake which should not be happening. This can cause sleep paralysis. Experiencing negative emotions is another common occurrence during REMsleep. This is because the area of the brain known as the amygdala, which is important in fear processing, is active throughout REM sleep. Since it is active during REM and is closely associated with fear is thought to facilitate the generation of anxiety and fear during sleep paralysis.
So how do you avoid sleep paralysis? There are a number of factors that contribute to your likelihood of experiencing it. A twin study conducted on 862 participants showed that genetics are at least partially to blame for sleep paralysis, with researchers finding that genes accounted for 53% of the occurrence of sleep paralysis. If you have a sleep disorder, you’re also most likely to experience sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a common symptom of a sleeping disorder called narcolepsy, which is characterized by excessive and uncontrollable daytime sleepiness.
Sleep paralysis is also most likely to occur if you sleep on your back and if you regularly don’t get enough sleep. In general, poor mental health is associated with sleep paralysis. Higher scores on self-reported measures of depressed mood and anxiety have been associated with sleep paralysis. Research focusing on sleep paralysis and patients with PTSD showed higher prevalence as well and another study has linked the bipolar disorder to sleep paralysis. As we have seen, there are a number of factors associated with sleep paralysis like genetics, poor sleep, sleeping disorders.
And poor mental wellness. Aside from avoiding treating these specific risk factors are there other treatments that could work for avoiding sleep paralysis? Well, there is no universal treatment that works for treating sleep paralysis. There are preventative and management strategies, however, these strategies lack empirical consensus among researchers. Some researchers have suggested that treating underlying sleep-related disorders or mental illness disorders may help with preventing the occurrence of sleep paralysis and some pharmaceutical drugs such as antidepressants.
It May Help in managing sleep paralysis due to its REM suppressing properties. Additional preventive strategies for sleep paralysis include having optimal sleep hygiene, avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bed, and incorporating pre-sleep relaxation practices into your nightly routine. Although experiencing sleep paralysis can be extremely frightful, there are no immediate dangers or health risks associated with it.