The Scary Truth About Sleep Paralysis
Have you ever experienced a moment, stuck between sleep and wakefulness, where you feel like you are unable to move or speak? Sometimes this can be accompanied by vivid or scary hallucinations? Well, if you have, you’ve experienced ‘Sleep Paralysis’ – a common and frightening phenomenon that one in four of us will suffer from in our lives.
Akin to a brief, semi-awake nightmare, sleep paralysis is an extension of our Dream State and occurs when the features of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, intrude into wakefulness, leading to muscles that are unable to move, shortened breath, and vivid hallucinations – often described as demonic and chilling.
We’ve looked into the causes of sleep paralysis, and the things you can do to avoid experiencing it.
The Science of Sleep Paralysis
First off, let’s just talk about exactly what sleep paralysis is, and why it occurs. Though it seems scary, and like something you definitely DON’T want to experience, it’s actually a pretty normal consequence of standard sleep patterns, and completely harmless.
Before we dive into the specifics, it’s good to remind ourselves about the role of REM sleep, and how it’s supposed to work normally – since this is the sleep phase in which sleep paralysis occurs.
REM sleep is when we usually dream, as the neurons in your brain are firing memories, thoughts, and emotions back to your cortex. They also send projections down towards your spinal cord to relax the body into a meditative (paralyzed) state. The brain and the spinal cord usually work in unison so that when you’re dreaming, your body is actively paralyzed, and when you wake up, you stop dreaming, stop being paralyzed, and start perceiving reality.
When these two functions are out of sync, sleep paralysis occurs.
Experiencing Sleep Paralysis
Most people who experience sleep paralysis describe the phenomenon as a feeling of terror, anxiety and visual hallucinations. A sense of foreboding is usually felt, or that something dangerous is in the room.
This can be explained, though! These strange hallucinations and feelings are a result of the rapid transition between a dreaming state, and waking state, where your body and brain struggle to re-sync.
Causes of Sleep Paralysis
Everyone who experiences sleep paralysis can usually pinpoint the cause at the time. For some, it can be a once-in-a-blue-moon scenario, but for others, it may occur more frequently. There are certain triggers of sleep paralysis for most people, and once we understand these triggers, we are more likely to avoid experiencing it.
Sleep paralysis often occurs during periods of sleep deprivation and high stress. It can also occur more for those with disrupted sleep, for example, shift workers or new parents.
There also seems to be a strong correlation between sleep paralysis, and those with anxiety or depression.
We touched upon sleep positions in a previous post, but it’s been proven that those who experience sleep paralysis, are often sleeping on their backs.
Most people who suffer from sleep paralysis report that it usually occurs while trying to fall asleep, but it can also occur when awakening from sleep. Typically, it occurs at night, but sometimes it can even happen during daytime naps.
Other Sleep Disorders:
If you suffer from sleep apnea or narcolepsy, you are also more likely to experience sleep paralysis. Both of these disorders can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle, leading to paralysis when woken from the REM stage of sleep.
How To Avoid Sleep Paralysis
The most important thing you can do to avoid experiencing sleep paralysis is to regulate and improve the quality of your sleep; mainly ensuring that you are properly rested, and not interrupted, during those 7-8 hours in bed.
Reducing alcohol has also been proven to lessen the risk, as alcohol can interrupt the signal between sleep and wakefulness when we are in REM sleep. As a mild sedative, it can help you fall asleep quicker, but alcohol is quickly metabolized, leaving you with fragmented sleep and a greater likelihood to experience sleep paralysis.
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