An in-depth look at sleep paralysis – the causes, symptoms, and treatments for this frightening sleep disorder.
Sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience. You may wake up unable to move or speak, feeling an ominous presence in the room.
Is this medical condition something to worry about or just a strange quirk of sleep? In this article, we’ll uncover the paralyzing truth about sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis has happened to many people, including myself. I still remember the first time it happened – waking up frozen in place, convinced there was an intruder in my room.
It felt like an eternity before I could move again. The feeling of helplessness is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.
The best medical plans for individuals often cover mental health services, which may help address anxiety related to conditions like sleep paralysis.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain either wakes up before the body or falls asleep after the body. It’s caused by a disconnect between the body and mind during the transitions into or out of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
During REM, the body is essentially paralyzed, which prevents us from physically acting out dreams. With sleep paralysis, we wake up before that paralysis has worn off.
Risk factors include:
- Sleep deprivation – Not getting enough sleep can make sleep paralysis more likely.
- Disruptions to sleep schedule – Jet lag, shift work, or other interruptions to your circadian rhythm can contribute.
- Sleeping on your back – Sleeping in the supine position seems to make sleep paralysis more common.
- Mental health conditions – Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder are associated with higher rates of sleep paralysis.
- Family history – Sleep paralysis can run in families.
What Does Sleep Paralysis Feel Like?
Being unable to move or speak during sleep paralysis understandably induces fear and panic. Many people also hallucinate a sense of a sinister presence in the room. Common hallucinations include:
- Feeling someone sitting on your chest
- Hearing footsteps, knocking, or other noises
- Seeing a shadowy human figure or creature
- Sensing an evil presence
These auditory and visual hallucinations result from the brain being in a dreamlike state while conscious. The amygdala, responsible for emotions like fear, is highly active during episodes.
I’ll never forget the first time I hallucinated a figure during sleep paralysis. I was convinced an intruder was standing in the corner, despite knowing intellectually it couldn’t be real. The fear felt completely visceral.
The episode typically ends once the muscles can move again, usually within a couple of minutes. Though it can feel much longer when paralyzed with fear!
Is Sleep Paralysis Dangerous?
The feeling of sleep paralysis is undeniably terrifying. But despite the dramatic symptoms, it’s not dangerous from a medical perspective. The exception would be if someone has a heart condition and the fright triggers heart issues.
It’s also important to note that recurring sleep paralysis combined with excessive daytime sleepiness may signal an underlying sleep disorder like narcolepsy. Be sure to discuss persistent issues with your doctor.
While not medically serious on its own, sleep paralysis can still significantly disrupt sleep and cause anxiety. The feeling of helplessness each episode induces can also take a psychological toll over time.
Treatments to Stop Sleep Paralysis
The good news is there are steps you can take to reduce episodes of sleep paralysis:
- Improve sleep habits – Prioritize getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Maintain a consistent schedule, limit blue light exposure at night, avoid caffeine late in the day, and make your bedroom comfortable for sleep. Addressing any insomnia or other sleep problems can help.
- Try sleeping on your side – Sleeping on your back makes sleep paralysis more likely, so switching positions may help. You can even try sewing a tennis ball into the back of a shirt to make back-sleeping uncomfortable.
- Reduce stress – Managing anxiety through exercise, meditation, therapy, medication, or other methods can minimize sleep disruptions that contribute to sleep paralysis.
- Avoid triggers – Substances that alter sleep cycles, like sleep aids, antidepressants, and alcohol, can trigger episodes.
During an episode, focusing on moving just one finger or toe can sometimes help end it. Having a supportive partner nearby to help ground you in reality is also beneficial.
While startling, sleep paralysis is ultimately harmless for most people. Making positive sleep and lifestyle changes can usually reduce the scary run-ins with this strange sleep phenomenon.