What Causes Sleep Paralysis and What You Can Do About It

Some people wake up from sleep unable to move. This phenomenon is called sleep paralysis. And it can be terrifying if it happens to you.

But what is it exactly? Folklore used to explain it as evil spirits pinning you to the bed. However, science has a different explanation for it.

So, keep reading if you’ve ever been curious about sleep paralysis. Or if you want to know what you can do about it yourself. And understanding it may make it less terrifying.

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

If you’ve woken up from a sound sleep only to find out that your body won’t move, it can be a terrifying experience. Some people who experience it can’t speak too. They’re rendered immobile and helpless on the bed.

What causes sleep paralysis? Scientists believe they have a perfectly rational explanation for this occurrence. And despite the popular belief, it has nothing to do with supernatural beings.

Sleep paralysis typically happens when someone wakes up before REM sleep is finished. Because muscles are essentially switched “off” during rapid eye movement (REM) a person may have vivid dreams but not able to move. This may be considered a safety measure so you don’t physically act out what happens in your dreams.

If that same person wakes up before the body is done with REM, the muscles haven’t switched “on”. This means that even though the person seems awake with eyes open, the body hasn’t caught up yet.

However, another study suggests that sleep paralysis can occur at 3 separate times during sleep:

  • Soon after falling asleep
  • In the middle of sleep
  • Right before someone wakes up

According to the study, sleep paralysis can happen at any time during the sleep cycle. And it may not be limited to REM cycles.

Causes

There is a variety of scenarios that may cause sleep paralysis. But doctors can’t pinpoint exactly what makes a person more predisposed than others. Some causes may include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Sleep disorders like sleep apnea
  • Medications
  • Narcolepsy
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Sleeping on the back
  • Youth, between the ages of 10 and 25
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Genetics

In addition, one study revealed that people who suffer from anxiety and depression are more likely to experience sleep paralysis.

Symptoms

The symptoms of sleep paralysis may vary from person to person. But generally, they only last a few seconds. At worst, it may last a few minutes.

The main symptom of sleep paralysis is a person’s complete awareness of their surrounding but being unable to move or talk during the episode. Additional symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty breathing, as if the chest is restricted
  • Eye movement
  • Feeling terrified or frightened
  • Sweating
  • Paranoia
  • Muscle pains
  • Headaches

Even environmental sounds that you would normally tune out become significant and may add to the terror. Hallucinations are also a common thread when people have sleep paralysis. There are 3 categories of sleep paralysis-induced hallucinations:

Intruder

First, intruder hallucinations are relatively common. This is the sense that a threatening or evil presence is in the room.

Vestibular-Motor

Other people experience sensations like flying, floating, or moving. This category also includes out-of-body experiences that some people report during paralysis.

Incubus

Another common and terrifying hallucination is the feeling that someone or thing is pressing down on the body. It may feel like choking. Or the chest may feel restricted as if someone is sitting on it.

Happy Hallucinations

All hallucinations aren’t terrifying ones, though. There are a few people who reported feeling euphoric during sleep paralysis. These positive feelings link to people who are more likely to experience vestibular-motor hallucinations.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Sleep paralysis doesn’t normally come under medical diagnosis. However, if you experience the following symptoms, it may be time to talk to your doctor:

  • Difficulty or anxiety falling asleep
  • Paralysis happens regularly
  • Feeling unusually sleepy during the day
  • Falling asleep suddenly or without warning

Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there are no specific treatments for dealing with sleep paralysis. But managing some of the potential triggers in your life may reduce the potential for sleep paralysis. This includes managing stress levels, observing good sleep habits, and following a regular sleeping schedule.

Some additional tips to get a better night’s sleep include:

  • Consistent wake-time and bedtime -Try to keep it during holidays and weekends, too
  • Make your sleep environment comfortable – Invest in comfy pillows or a new bed set
  • Reduce light exposure – Use night lights instead of keeping lights on at night
  • Keep the bedroom just for sleeping – Resist the urge to do anything but sleep in your bedroom
  • Get out into the sunlight when you’re awake – Try to get some sun when you’re awake
  • Avoid late afternoon naps – Try not to nap after 3pm and keep it brief
  • Don’t fall asleep with the lights or television on – Keep it dark when you fall asleep
  • Avoid heavy meals before bedtime – Stop eating up to a couple of hours before bed
  • Incorporate calming activities – Listen to music or read in the evenings to calm your mind
  • Try not to drink caffeine or alcohol at night – Abstain if you can for a good night’s sleep
  • Exercise during the day – Physical activity can make it easier to fall asleep at night
  • Put away electronics at least 1 hour before bed – Keep cell phones and tablets away when it’s time for bed

Addressing the underlying causes of bad sleep like depression, anxiety or stress may also help reduce the risk of sleep paralysis.

Final Thought

Sleep paralysis can be frightening. But keeping track of what causes sleep paralysis may be the key. Scientists may not know exactly what causes sleep paralysis. Furthermore, there are plenty of links between certain behaviors and sleep paralysis. Minimizing the potential triggers may help.

Lastly, there’s nothing you can do about genetic disposition. However, you can reduce stress levels and make sure that you follow a regular sleep schedule. And if sleep paralysis starts to impact your daily life, it may be time to seek medical help. They may be able to find underlying causes such as a sleep disorder that you didn’t know you had.

References:

https://www.livescience.com/50876-sleep-paralysis.html
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleep-paralysis/
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/295039.php
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321569.php
https://www.livescience.com/49818-sleep-paralysis-genetic-basis.html
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156892/
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2006.00512.x
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1087079217301120
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1025373412722

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