Sleep Paralysis

Read about the mystery surrounding sleep paralysis and what medical science has to say

By Sheryl Grassie

Jan 18th, 2021

Sleep Paralysis is experienced as the inability to move or speak upon waking. It has historically been explained by supernatural causes but is actually a medical condition associated with REM sleep.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

You wake up in the middle of the night, frozen in bed, terrified, and feeling like it is hard to breathe. You sense the presence of someone in the room. If this has happened to you, you’ve experienced an episode of sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is experienced differently by different people, but all report the inability to move or speak. Some people feel pressure on their chest, some people feel like they are choking. Others experience hallucinations, believing that something or someone is sitting on them, or lurking in the room wanting to hurt them. This can be a very scary experience and the paralysis is often accompanied by heightened anxiety or outright panic.

A Little History on Sleep Paralysis

The experience of sleep paralysis is common and has been documented for centuries. Even primitive cultures describe it in their folklore, constructing legends about creatures from another world. Before we had a good medical understanding of sleep paralysis, the experience was interpreted all over the globe as something supernatural, often to do with demons or alien abductions. In modern times, we know that sleep paralysis is a physical condition that originates inside the body, not outside it, and not from a demonic source.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is not harmful and happens when you are awake during a rapid eye movement (REM) state. It can happen just as you are falling asleep, or more commonly as you are waking up. It can happen infrequently, like once or twice a year, or more often like multiple times in a month, and overall it occurs in about 35 % of the population.

Our sleep is comprised of two different types. The first, called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) is a lighter sleep, and the second termed rapid eye movement (REM) is a deeper sleep state. NREM sleep has three sleep stages within it, gradually getting deeper and deeper until you shift into REM.

When you sleep, you move through roughly 90-minute cycles throughout the night. These cycles contain the three stages of NREM and REM sleep. Approximately 75-80% of your overall sleep is NREM and 20-25% REM.

Over the duration of your sleep, the NREM portion of the 90-minute cycles gets shorter and the REM portion gets longer, resulting in a deeper sleep towards morning. During REM you are in a relaxed state and your body is not moving; this is the period of sleep when most of your dreams occur. Your body, in the deep REM state, immobilizes your muscles so you don’t act out your dream life.

If for some reason your sleep is disturbed, you may wake up quickly, but it may take a few minutes for your body to wake up as well. This disparity creates the experience of sleep paralysis; when you are awake enough to know your body is frozen. Then your mind signals your body to wake up and the paralysis ends. It may take seconds or even minutes to come out of the arrested state. Additionally, there may be a “bleed through” into the consciousness of your dream life that causes the hallucinations; no little grey men or monsters in the room – only your mind.

Even knowing there is nothing supernatural about sleep paralysis, it is a disconcerting experience. It is considered common and generally starts during the teen years. Researchers think there may be a genetic link as it does seem to occur in families. It is not harmful to your health, but it can be a symptom of other problems like narcolepsy. If you have sleep paralysis, along with unexpected bouts of falling asleep during the day, consult your doctor. There are a number of contributing factors, or triggers, which might increase your likelihood of having sleep paralysis. Some of these include:

How is Sleep Paralysis Treated?

In spite of how frightening sleep paralysis can feel, it is important to remember that it is not a serious disorder. Consequently, most doctors don’t treat it at all; they just reassure their patients that nothing is really wrong.

If you think your case is severe, or if you are having other symptoms like being very tired during the day, you might want to get some help from your doctor or consult a sleep specialist. In general, however, treatment for sleep paralysis is mostly palliative as the condition has not been extensively researched.

Some common suggestions to help lessen the condition are to practice good sleep hygiene, especially to incorporate a regular bedtime, and to get enough sleep. You can try CBD oil which is available over the counter or ask your physician for an anti-depressant as some have shown promise in curbing sleep paralysis.

Let’s Review

Sleep Paralysis is a condition where you wake unable to move your body, possibly experiencing hallucinations of someone menacing in the room. Sleep paralysis can be very scary, and historically cultures sought to explain it by giving credit to supernatural beings, aliens, or night demons.

What medical science has come to understand is that the body is somewhat naturally paralyzed during REM sleep. If you wake from REM too suddenly, the mind may be ahead of the body, allowing you to become conscious of the paralysis.

The body, however, will quickly follow by waking up and shaking off its frozen state. There is no need to treat this common condition, but it can be lessened with good sleep hygiene or addressed by a sleep specialist.