Sleep paralysis can be terrifying. One moment, you’re asleep and dreaming. The next, you’re awake, the dream is still going on, and you can’t move a muscle to do anything about it. It’s hard to explain how scary this is if you’ve never experienced it. However, if you or a loved one has bouts of sleep paralysis, you know just how awful it can be. Here’s what’s really going on.
The Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis
People experiencing a bout of sleep paralysis simply cannot move a muscle. They can generally move their eyes, but they can’t react, respond, or speak at all. They are both fully awake and fully asleep, and the body is confused about what state it should be in.
This can happen both upon falling asleep and upon waking. When it happens on the way to sleep, it seems that the body doesn’t get a chance to shut down entirely before REM sleep begins to occur. When people experience it upon waking, the body wakes up before the mind has a chance to.
In addition, many people experience sleep paralysis alongside terrifying dreams, which seem like visions because the body is awake. These are usually frightening, and the person wants to run, hide, or fight but finds that he can’t. This inability to defend oneself only adds to the terror of the experience as a whole.
Periods of sleep paralysis are usually short, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Occasionally, they can last for a few hours, though these cases are few and far between.
The Causes of Sleep Paralysis
Most of our dreams take place while we are in REM sleep. During this time, the muscles are always paralyzed. This keeps us from acting out our dreams and hurting other people, injuring ourselves, or driving our bed partners crazy. Basically, sleep paralysis was designed to keep us safe while our brains do what they need to do at night.
In people who struggle with sleep paralysis, though, this paralysis and the dreams that come with it cross over into the waking world. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this happens, though it seems to correspond to overactivity in the vigilant part of the brain.
Somehow, the brain’s signals get crossed and it perceives a dream threat as a threat in real life. It wakes the body but does not complete this process. Thus, the person feels threatened but cannot do anything about it.
The Treatment of Sleep Paralysis
While there is no treatment for sleep paralysis directly, it seems to go alongside several other conditions. When these conditions receive adequate treatment, the number of sleep paralysis episodes goes down drastically, if they don’t go away entirely.
- Sleep apnea. This is a condition where people struggle to breathe when they are asleep. The airway collapses and they may snore loudly or toss and turn. This condition often requires several visits to the doctor and a CPAP machine for treatment, but episodes of sleep paralysis tend to go away once treatment is applied.
- Anxiety. Because sleep paralysis is tied to the vigilance center in the brain, it makes sense that treating anxiety would calm this center down, even in sleep. Many people tame anxiety through meditation, stress reduction, and/or medication.
- Narcolepsy. This condition causes the body to sleep and wake almost randomly, or without much notice. Treating it can help significantly reduce the number of sleep paralysis episodes a person suffers.
- Migraines. Researchers aren’t sure how these tie to sleep paralysis, but they definitely do. Coming up with an adequate treatment for migraines also reduces people’s sleep paralysis.
- Sleep deprivation. If there’s no condition underlying your experience of sleep paralysis, you probably just need more sleep. Make sure you have a supportive mattress and pillow, make your room as dark and silent as possible, and stay away from screens for an hour or so before bedtime.
The Effects of Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis is not an inherently dangerous condition. It can, however, make it harder for a person to sleep, thus creating a vicious circle wherein a person’s sleep deprivation causes their sleep paralysis, which in turn causes more sleep deprivation. Usually, this sleep deprivation stems from anxiety – people are so worried about experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis that they can’t fall asleep at all.
Because the conditions that underlie sleep paralysis are so treatable, the condition itself is usually avoidable. If the anxiety about sleep is too high, it may require medication for a few nights, to help a person regain their equilibrium. It’s important to remember that no one needs to suffer because of sleep paralysis. See a doctor, get some good treatment, and get back to sleeping like normal soon!