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Understanding Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Understanding Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

by

Aoife O.
 | 
Nov 09, 2020

There are some not pleasant experiences we can encounter while sleeping such as having nightmares and sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience, waking up in the middle of the night in your dark bedroom unable to move as ominous figures approach your frozen body. Some have reported being choked and even restrained in their sleep. Sleep paralysis makes you feel wide awake but your body is fast asleep. It can leave you traumatized and the interruption to your sleep cycle can severely impact your physical energy and mental wellbeing. Let’s talk about why 8 percent of the general population will experience at least one episode of sleep paralysis, and how you can prevent it.


What Is Sleep Paralysis?

The boundary between alertness and depths of sleep is a thin veil and the frightening disruption of sleep paralysis happens to many people. A 2011 sleep paralysis review revealed that almost 8 percent of the general population will experience at least one episode, with students and psychiatric patients being most affected—particularly those who suffer from anxiety disorders or narcolepsy.


Sleep paralysis hallucinations occur either during sleep (hypnopompic) or when falling asleep (hypnagogic). During sleep, the body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep and it is at the end of the REM stage when the frightening episode of sleep paralysis takes hold. While sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming are both dissociated experiences related to REM sleep, the lucid dreaming means you have metacognitive awareness, meaning you know you’re asleep and that the unfolding events are not reality.


A lack of sleep, substance abuse, or certain medications can also trigger a sleep paralysis event

What Are the Different Types of Sleep Paralysis?

This condition can affect anyone and is usually first noticed in the teenage years. It can be hereditary but those who suffer existing conditions such as bipolar disorder, narcolepsy, or anxiety can be at greater risk. A lack of sleep, substance abuse, or certain medications can also trigger a sleep paralysis event.

  • Isolated Sleep Paralysis: The episode is not connected to any medical condition such as narcolepsy where the brain has difficulty controlling wakefulness and sleep

  • Recurrent Sleep Paralysis: One or more episodes occurring over time

What Does Sleep Paralysis Feel Like?

Sleep paralysis feels like waking up paralyzed. Your muscles are paralyzed while sleeping so you don’t act out your dreams. This is normal and healthy, an episode of sleep paralysis feels like you’re wide awake but your body is frozen for a few seconds.


Hallucinations are a common secondary symptom of sleep paralysis and include:

  • Intruder Hallucinations: Feeling a dangerous presence in the room

  • Chest Pressure Hallucinations: Feeling as if you can’t breathe

  • Vestibular-Motor Hallucinations: Feeling as if you’re having an out of body experience or feel like you’re flying


What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis causes an interruption in the rapid eye movement phase of sleep. As you sleep, you cycle through REM and non-REM sleep phases. Dreams occur during the REM phase when your eyes move fast but your body is still.


During sleep paralysis, the process of moving from REM to non-REM sleep is distorted. You’re wide awake but your brain needs a few seconds to receive the message.


As explained by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine: "Normally your brain causes your muscles to relax and be still in REM sleep. This is called 'REM atonia.' This happens to keep you from acting out your dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when REM atonia happens while you are falling asleep or waking up."

Additional sleep paralysis causes can include:

  • Narcolepsy
  • Extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation
  • Medications
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sleep apnea

Sleep paralysis occurs when REM atonia happens while you are falling asleep or waking up.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

The symptoms of sleep paralysis include:

  • Waking up from sleep but unable to move any muscles for a few seconds
  • Unable to speak after waking up for a few seconds
  • Frightening hallucinations and paranoia that are short-lived
  • Feeling unable to breathe for a few seconds
  • Fearing for your life

Can You Die in Your Sleep From Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience, especially when hallucinations are involved. If you’re wondering ‘can you suffocate from sleep paralysis or die?’ the answer is no, you can not die from sleep paralysis. During the episode, there is a slight delay in your brain signals that may last only a few seconds. It’s not dangerous and you do not suffer any ill effects from sleep paralysis.


Sleep Paralysis Treatment

Sleep paralysis is not a serious medical condition with episodes generally sporadic. However, if experiencing a severe bout of sleep paralysis where your daily life is affected by lack of sleep, you can be referred to a sleep specialist for an evaluation. The first step in treating sleep paralysis is to tackle any stressful situations in your life. Depression and anxiety can be triggers of sleep paralysis so speak to your doctor if symptoms are unbearable. Often just implementing sleep hygiene practices can benefit symptoms greatly. Ensure a full 7 hours of sleep per night and indulge in some meditation and exercise.


Create a relaxing sleep space with comfy blankets, dim lighting, and a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow. Wind down before sleep by limiting screen time and caffeine. There’s nothing at all to fear from sleep paralysis. If your waking hours are impacted by lack of sleep, a consistent and healthy bedtime routine along with a holistic approach to managing stress can conquer sleep paralysis, and optimize health.


Tips on How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis

To learn how to stop sleep paralysis, it’s important to know what triggers sleep paralysis and how to handle an episode. If you’re in a deep sleep unable to wake up your body but your mind is awake. Tell yourself that the episode will be short lived (typically a few seconds) and it’s only an episode of dream paralysis.


Additional Tips:

  • Learn how to manage stress with meditation, deep breathing, or yoga
  • Exercising every day
  • If necessary, talk to your doctor about switching medications that could be causing sleep paralysis episodes

Conclusion

The best sleep paralysis cure is relaxation before bed. Avoid using electronics for one hour before bed. Instead, read a book, enjoy a bubble bath or hot shower, write in your journal, or meditate for a few minutes to relax your body and mind.


It’s important to know that sleep paralysis is not dangerous. If you have a fearful episode, you could channel those feelings into art, writing, music, or some creative expression you enjoy. Stephen King has used his dreams as inspiration for his writing, you could too.

Disclaimer: Nolah does not provide medical advice. All resources on the Nolah blog, including this article, are informational only and do not replace professional medical counsel. Talk to your doctor about any health, mental health, or sleep-related issues.

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