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What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Infographic - Sleep Paralysis Decoded

Sleep is one of the most mysterious phenomena in living beings, and it has intrigued since the dawn of civilization. Although science has been able to understand much of the processes in living beings, sleep is still mostly a mystery. Much of this is because we aren’t conscious when sleep happens and it’s impossible to tell what happened while we were sleeping after we wake up. For years, scientists have been studying sleep and associated phenomenons like sleep paralysis and have also managed to figure out a lot about what happens in the brain and the body when a person is asleep. However, some aspects of sleep are yet to be demystified, and one of them is the REM stage.

The final of the four stages of sleep is called the Rapid Eye Movement stage because the brain is active in this phase and the eyes move rapidly behind closed eyelids. Many interesting things happen during this stage. Dreams, for instance, have intrigued both scientists and the common man for the longest time, and they happen during the REM phase. When dreams happen, the brain is active, but the body is still inactive, in a state of paralysis, to prevent it from acting out the dreams. Another mysterious phenomenon is linked to the REM stage, and this is sleep paralysis.

Decoding Sleep Paralysis?

Have you ever woken up from sleep, only to find that you couldn’t move or talk or get out of bed for a few moments? That’s what is sleep paralysis. In ancient times, it was linked to supernatural creatures.  When the episode occurs, everyone thought that is supernatural creature had possessed him. This made sleep paralysis a very scary phenomenon for everyone.

The condition was also termed a type of nightmare. But after a lot of scientific research, it is now known that the condition is nothing but being mentally aware while still asleep. This can happen either during falling asleep or waking up. The REM stage is the most complicated phenomenon associated with sleep, mainly because the brain becomes active and is conscious enough to experience life-like visions in the form of dreams, but the body is still inactive. Although the cause of sleep paralysis has been learned, the reason behind it still remains unclear.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Although science is still unsure about the exact cause of sleep paralysis, global folklore has had explanations for centuries. These include visits from supernatural beings like ghosts, witches, and demons. In recent cases in the US, sleep paralysis has also been called “alien abductions.”

These associations to supernatural activity make sense because during sleep paralysis many people experience pressure on the chest, the feeling of being secretly watched by an intruder, and other hallucinations. However, none of these actually happen. These are only sensory perceptions because the brain is still in the REM phase and the body is inactive. This means the person has woken up when he is not supposed to be awake.

Because sleep paralysis is a complex phenomenon, it has been widely studied by scientists. The most common cause is waking up in the middle of REM stage sleep. When a person wakes up when the REM stage is still active, he is able to see, hear and feel because the brain is awake, but is unable to move because the body has not yet come out of the REM stage. Although this sounds scary, it lasts only a few seconds because the body realizes that the brain is already awake and slowly begins to move again.

In the number of studies conducted over the years to find out more about sleep paralysis, the most common cause has been identified as sleep deprivation. When a person is deprived of the normal sleep cycle, he is more likely to wake up in the middle of the REM stage. Usually, we are supposed to wake up at the end of the REM stage, but if we don’t have a normal sleep cycle, the possibility of waking up in the middle of the REM stage increases. This is when sleep paralysis is most likely to happen.

Sleep paralysis is also common in narcolepsy patients, according to sleep experts at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at the Montefiore Health System, New York. Because narcolepsy is the result of a disrupted sleep cycle, sleep paralysis is more likely to happen, in combination with hallucinations. Napping also increases the possibility of sleep paralysis because it disrupts the natural sleep pattern. If you oversleep while napping, you may experience sleep paralysis.

Young age also is likely to be a cause behind sleep paralysis. The Mayo Clinic says that sleep paralysis is most common in the age range of 10 and 25. This means even children can be affected by this disorder and also get very frightened.

In people with anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or panic disorder, sleep paralysis is very likely, according to a 2017 report published by the National Institutes of Health. Since these emotional disorders result in nightmares and insomnia, they also increase the possibility of sleep paralysis.

According to a 2011 study by Pennsylvania State University, nearly eight percent of the general population experienced sleep paralysis. Among them, about 31 percent of people suffer from mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Although this was a small study, it does go a long way in proving that mental disorders are associated with sleep paralysis to a certain extent. However, this doesn’t mean that every person with anxiety or PTSD will get sleep paralysis.

Genetics may also have a role to play in sleep paralysis. According to the findings of a 2015 sleep study involving 862 twins and siblings by the University of Sheffield, genetics could influence sleep paralysis is some people.  Although this study was also preliminary, the researchers added that it does provide a basic idea about the involvement of circadian rhythms in sleep paralysis.

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

Those who have experienced sleep paralysis find it to be scary. It almost seems like you were having a stroke, where your entire body was paralyzed, and you couldn’t move or speak. These are the most important symptoms of sleep paralysis. People are unable to move any part of their bodies or speak right after waking up or right when falling asleep. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can last a few seconds or up to a minute. Along with paralysis of the body, people may also experience tightness or pressure on their chest, as well as a choking feeling.

Hallucinations are also not uncommon during an episode of sleep paralysis. This is because the brain is still in a dream-state and hasn’t fully woken up. These visions or hallucinations can be an extension of an ongoing dream. Aside from these, there are no other symptoms of sleep paralysis. The person is awake and aware during sleep paralysis episodes and can later recount the experience.

Sleep Paralysis Prevention and Treatment sleep paralysis treatment

There are no short or long term effects of sleep paralysis. Hence, there is no treatment for it. What can be treated is an underlying cause that could be contributing to sleep paralysis. Rather than treatment, this is an effort to prevent sleep paralysis.

Sleep experts suggest that medical help is not required after only one rare episode of sleep paralysis. What is important is to check your sleep hygiene. Often, sleep paralysis is a sign of sleep deprivation.  If you have experienced sleep paralysis only once or twice, you should make sure to get enough sleep daily, limit caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and all other drugs, and stop using electronics at bedtime.

Medical help might be needed to treat underlying causes if the above doesn’t help and sleep paralysis episodes keep becoming more frequent. A sleep specialist is a person to see if you have recurrent sleep paralysis episodes.

Although sleep paralysis is not dangerous, if you experience extreme episodes, you may be prescribed a short course of antidepressants. This helps to treat any underlying stress or mental disorder that might be the reason.

Sleep experts suggest that during a sleep paralysis episode, it is important to remain calm and keep telling yourself that it will soon pass. There’s not much else that you can do. No one has ever remained in a sleep paralysis forever, so it’s important to understand that it’s only temporary and pass very soon. However, this is possible only when you’ve experienced an episode or two before. The first time, such episodes can really be frightening.

Risk Factors of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a fairly common phenomenon and can affect anyone in any age group. It is most likely to begin between age 14 and 17 years and decreases after the age of 30. A person is more likely to experience it if there someone in the family with the disorder.

Some of the risk factors are:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety, depression or PTSD
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Excessive stress
  • The use of certain medications

Interesting Facts About Sleep Paralysis

In the past, before science could explain everything, it used to be believed that ghosts and demons caused sleep paralysis by pinning people down by sitting on their chest. However, these visions were mere hallucinations, a common symptom of sleep paralysis. In fact, most people who report seeing apparitions actually had sleep paralysis.

People also use different methods to shake themselves out of the episode. Some wiggle their toes while others cough. However, it isn’t possible to wake oneself up from an episode of sleep paralysis, until it passes.

If you, or someone you know has episodes of sleep paralysis, share the following infographic. It lucidly explains what sleep paralysis is, what causes it, and finally how to treat sleep paralysis.

Infographic Sleep Paralysis

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