Have you ever woken up from sleeping, and found yourself unable to move? This horrific phenomenon has been happening to human beings since we’ve been conscious enough to talk about it, but it’s only been in the last century that we’ve been able to give it a name and start to analyze why it happens to us. This phenomenon is now known as sleep paralysis, but to people in the past, it was thought to have something to do with the Devil, or evil spirits that sought to torture people while they slept.
Today, we’ll talk about what causes sleep paralysis, and how getting into healthier habits can help you ease this terrifying experience.
What is sleep paralysis?
When we sleep, our body essentially paralyses itself in a process called REM atonia to prevent us from waking ourselves up during a dream. Most of the time, it’s what stops people from sleepwalking, or acting out their dreams.
Sleep paralysis is what you experience when your mind wakes up from sleep, but your body remains dormant. Most of the time, people who have experienced episodes of sleep paralysis find themselves unable to move or talk, and it may feel as if you’re unable to breathe deeply. This is because the diaphragm is usually the only part of the body to awaken with the mind, so we’re able to take in air, but our chest muscles refuse to expand, so we’re only able to take shallow breaths.
What are some other sensations I may experience during sleep paralysis?
Many reported cases of sleep paralysis include intense feelings of panic or fear, possibly due to our inability to breathe deeply. Some people have also reported hearing noises that were later confirmed to be imaginary — buzzing, humming, and even specific sounds like other voices whispering or animal noises such as roars. Many people also feel sensations like vibrations or hallucinate the feeling of other hands on their body. These reported sensations often overlap between patients, but researchers have determined that this is likely because most people hallucinate that which they fear the most, and these fears are often common within the local population.
What causes sleep paralysis?
Many researchers think that sleep paralysis is caused because of a disruption or dysfunction in our REM sleep. It most often occurs right as we’re waking up or falling asleep, which is the time when our body is moving from REM sleep into non-REM sleep. The ideal way for our bodies to leave REM sleep is for our physical body and mind to leave the pattern at the same time. Sleep paralysis is what happens when our mind leaves REM sleep faster than the rest of our body.
Research has also found that the way our body regulates melatonin could have something to do with whether we’re predisposed to experience sleep paralysis.
When does it first start happening?
It’s thought that eight percent to 50 percent of the global population will suffer at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lifetime. Generally, most people will suffer their first episode of sleep paralysis in their teens, and episodes are most common among young people in their 20s and 30s. Afterwards, episodes are generally not as common. Only about five percent of the population suffers from regular episodes of sleep paralysis.
How is sleep paralysis diagnosed?
Sleep paralysis is diagnosed through a clinical interview with your physician or a sleep specialist. There is no way to test for sleep paralysis. Only the patient explaining their experience will reveal to the doctor whether or not they’ve experience this phenomenon.
If you go to your doctor and they confirm that you’ve suffered an episode of sleep paralysis, they’ll probably want to test you for other sleep disorders, including narcolepsy. Your doctor will check for narcolepsy with a round of genetic testing. Roughly 2/3 of all people with narcolepsy also suffer from regular episodes of sleep paralysis.
Are there different types of sleep paralysis?
While there’s only one type of sleep paralysis, the number of times that you experience an episode will tell your doctor whether you have isolated sleep paralysis (ISP), or recurrent isolated sleep paralysis (RISP). Both of these types classify you as someone who experiences sleep paralysis either during one isolated incident, or rarely. If you’re diagnosed with RISP, it’s likely that you’ll also experience mental distress and strain related to the frequency of your episodes.
Is this detrimental to my body or my health?
While sleep paralysis is extremely uncomfortable and stressful in the moment, there’s no evidence that it affects our overall physical health in any way. However, the mental feelings of distress that occur during and after one of these episodes cannot be overstated. Sleep paralysis leads many people to feel panicked about going to sleep, and they may experience fear related to whether or not they’ll be able to wake up after an episode. If you suffer from recurrent isolated sleep paralysis, you may want to talk to a therapist, who will be able to help you work through some of these feelings.
What determines whether I’ll be susceptible to sleep paralysis?
Recent studies have confirmed that sleep paralysis may have a genetic component, and studies on twins have shown definitively that if one monozygotic twin experiences an episode of sleep paralysis, it’s likely that their identical twin is on track to experience the same.
The only other commonality is between people who have narcolepsy. 75 percent of people with narcolepsy also suffer from sleep paralysis. Males and female experience sleep paralysis at exactly the same rates, so there’s no known gender component at this time.
Is there anything that can bring me out of an episode of sleep paralysis?
In some cases, there’s nothing you can do to stop an episode of sleep paralysis once it’s started. Some people find that the physical touch of another person or just hearing their voice will help to wake up their body. Others claim to have had success by willing themselves to wake up or concentrating hard on wiggling their fingers and toes.
What are some bad sleep habits to avoid?
There are tons of things that you can do to help avoid episodes of sleep paralysis. Episodes tend to happen more frequently when we’re stressed out, physically tired, or have bad sleep hygiene. This means that in order to avoid sleep paralysis, it’s helpful to focus on improving bad sleep habits like staying up late, using screens too close to bedtime, and drinking alcohol or using other stimulation right before bed.
It’s important to try and get at least six to eight hours of sleep a night. It’s also thought that sleeping on your side or stomach may help prevent sleep paralysis.
Meditation is thought to be extremely helpful in improving sleep hygiene and can also help us feel less frightened and stressed out during or immediately after an episode. The more we practice meditation, the better we become at deliberately slowing down our heart rate and deepening our breaths. Our meditation practice can also help us feel more at ease with the uncomfortable feelings associated with sleep paralysis like anxiety, stress, and panic.
How else can a doctor help me with my sleep paralysis?
There are some types of anti-depressant medication that can be prescribed to help regulate our sleep cycles, and a doctor may prescribe these if you suffer from recurring episodes of sleep paralysis. They may also suggest that you refrain from the consumption of alcohol and can recommend a therapist who specializes in dealing with issues of trauma related to these stressful experiences.
Sleep paralysis in pop culture
Even though it’s frightening, there are tons of different ways that sleep paralysis has impacted our culture today. Many people believe that stories about alien abductions and evil spirits like the Jinn or the Pandafeche were dreamed up because people were struggling to come up with a way to describe their experiences with sleep paralysis. Authors like J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) have passages in their books that describe the experience of sleep paralysis perfectly.
For a more modern interpretation of this nighttime phenomenon, check out the 2015 documentary The Nightmare, which features interviews with tons of different people around the world describing their experiences with sleep paralysis.