What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a non-serious condition that affects some people when sleeping, mostly teens and adolescents, although, it can affect people of all ages. It occurs during the transitional stages between wakefulness and deep sleep and is the result of the mind waking up, but the body staying 'asleep'.
The feeling is that of being fully conscious, but completely paralysed; often accompanied by a perception of pressure on the chest, choking and helpless terror. Some people can also experience vivid hallucinations.
Although intrinsically scary, sleep paralysis is completely harmless and rarely has any premise to suggest underlying health concerns or psychiatric conditions.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
So we've answered what is sleep paralysis? But what actually causes it? Sleep paralysis is caused by becoming 'aware' during REM sleep; out of the 5 stages of sleep, REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep is when the mind is at its most active. REM sleep usually lasts for around 90 minutes and is experienced multiple times throughout a nights rest. Sleep paralysis happens usually when going into, or out of a REM sleep cycle.
Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis.
This is the name given to sleep paralysis if it occurs whilst falling asleep. When your body starts to relax and you start to drift off, your body can quickly move through the stages of sleep straight to REM. Usually, this ignored, but if it doesn't go unnoticed, you may find yourself in a state of sleep paralysis; not being able to move or speak.
Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis.
Hypno-pompic as opposed hypna-gogic sleep paralysis happens only when in fully established sleep. As your body alternates between cycles of REM sleep and non-REM sleep. the body experiences many changes.
In non-REM sleep the body is relaxed, blood pressure is lowered along with heart rate and body temperature; mind connections also significantly slow down. Non-REM sleep is when the mind and body can rest and recuperate.
REM sleep reduces bodily function further, relaxing the body to a point of temporary paralysis. The mind, on the other hand, becomes wide awake; and uses this time to form memories, processes information and develops itself. Because the brain is so active at this time it is possible to wake up suddenly leaving your mind awake, fully conscious, but your body still temporarily paralysed.
Hypnopompic sleep paralysis is usually experienced with more intensity and for longer duration than hypnagogic.
What can lead someone to experience sleep paralysis?
Unlike a lot of conditions, such as nutrient deficiencies; sleep paralysis is not directly caused by anything in particular or anything at all for that matter, which can make it difficult to learn how to stop sleep paralysis. There are, however, factors that can increase the chances of experiencing it.
- Lack of sleep.
Getting less than the recommended amount of sleep regularly can eventually lead to fatigue, which most would think would cause you to fall asleep really easily, but it is actually quite the opposite. Sufferers of fatigue often experience restless nights and regular wake-ups during the night. This can increase the chances of awakening during REM sleep and experiencing sleep paralysis.
- Change of routine.
Any change to your regular sleeping pattern can knock your natural body-clock out of sync. Setting your alarm 15 minutes earlier than usual may trigger your mind to wake up, but not your body as a whole. This would be an example of hypnopompic sleep paralysis.
- Other sleep problems.
Sleep conditions such as narcolepsy, night cramps and restless feet can all trigger you to become aware during a cycle of REM sleep. There is no scientifically backed evidence to support the theory that other conditions can cause sleep paralysis; although, there are many claims to suggest that sleep paralysis does coincide with other conditions.
- Use of certain medications.
It is reported that sufferers of ADHD can sometimes develop sleep paralysis when taking certain types of medication. This may be because the medication is intended to keep their minds more focused, but is also calming.
Focused, active mind; mixed with a relaxed body. It is not difficult to see why such medication could increase the chances of experiencing sleep paralysis.
- Substance abuse.
Not only limited to hard drugs, alcohol and other everyday 'substances' such as caffeine and nicotine can all have a profound effect on the body and mind.
Substances that have a psychological effect can change the way your body functions when both awake and asleep. Just like how alcohol can affect your balance and speech, it, and other substances can affect how your body regulates its sleep cycles.
- Sleeping on your back.
Many people who experience sleep paralysis state that it usually happens when sleeping on their back. It is unclear why, but several believe that it is because of a feeling of 'weightless' achieved only by sleeping flat.
If you briefly come around from your sleep, and you can't feel the weight of your body, it might trigger you to wake up fully. If this happens during REM sleep a person may experience sleep paralysis.
How To Spot The Signs.
Some people who experience sleep paralysis and don't know what it is can become convinced that they are either hallucinating during the night, or that they are experiencing something out of the paranormal.
To put some worries at ease, here are the symptoms of sleep paralysis:
- Waking up and being unable to move.
As the name suggests waking up and feeling paralysed is the most defining symptom of sleep paralysis. Those experiencing sleep paralysis might not be able to move their arms or legs.
- Not being able to muster a noise.
Sleep paralysis can be scary, especially if you don't know what's going on. As a result, many people feel the urge to scream and call for help, but can't. Not being able to speak, scream or make any noise is a common symptom of sleep paralysis.
- Feeling a weight on chest.
Many of those who experience sleep paralysis report a feeling of pressure on the chest, almost as if someone is pushing down on you. this is because when in REM sleep your breathing becomes very shallow and frequent. If you lay on your back, push all the air out of your lungs and take a few shallow breathes; you will feel a similar effect.
- Vivid dreams/hallucinations whilst awake.
Sleep-walking, talking and dreaming all occur when in REM sleep. This can mean that when waking up into a state of sleep paralysis, dreams can continue and appear as if they are hallucinations.
The reason why is that when your eyes open during sleep paralysis your dreams can merge into your surroundings; which can make them very lifelike and surreal.
Tips To Getting A Good Nights' Sleep.
The best way of learning how to avoid sleep paralysis is by learning how to get a good nights' sleep. There are many techniques that you can use to help you to relax and rest better, here are some examples:
- Lower caffeine consumption throughout the day and in the evening.
- Reduce screen usage closer to bedtime.
- Set an evening routine that allows you to gradually wind down.
- Practice mindfulness such as meditation or an evening yoga sequence.
- Exercise and maintain an active lifestyle.
- Eat a balanced, nutritionally dense diet.
- Avoid drugs and only consume alcohol in moderation.