‘Waking up dead’
No that’s not the title of an upcoming horror blockbuster movie, it’s a phrase people use to describe their experience of sleep paralysis. When one thinks of sleep they usually think of peace and relaxation whereas the second word in the compound of ‘sleep paralysis’ is as terrifying as things can get. Unfortunately, the latter part is what overshadows all traces of relaxation for the person experiencing the phenomenon.
Traditionally, the phenomenon has been explained by the presence of ghosts or evil monsters overshadowing a person but in the modern world, after extensive studies, science has discovered the causes and underlying mechanism of sleep paralysis. Let’s have a detailed look at what exactly is it, how to stop sleep paralysis, and how one can at least try to prevent themselves from falling prey to it.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep Paralysis is a sleeping disorder which is characterized by waking up immobilized during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. Confused? Let us explain. The sleep cycle of humans usually consists of 4 stages and the cycle is repeated numerous times during a single night. Three of the said phases are categorized under NREM or Non-Rapid Eye movement phases (1,2 & 3). The normal pattern usually goes like awake, 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, REM.
The REM phase occurs right before wakefulness and is often the phase with the most activity. It is so-called due to the continuous eye flickering that occurs during this time. It is also the phase in which we have most of our dreams, dreams that appear to be almost real, therefore our brain shuts off motor functions of our body in order to prevent any self-harm which we might cause.
As the sleep cycle approaches wakefulness, the brain sort of reactivates our motor function which re-enables us to move around. In people suffering from sleep paralysis, the synchronization between the brain signal and wakefulness is disrupted. The coordination between the body and the mind is interfered. Therefore, when this occurs people wake up being paralyzed (i.e. unable to move a muscle of their body).
The condition may last from seconds to even an hour and is often accompanied by hallucinations such as being levitated and abducted by aliens, by a feeling of hideous creature compressing your chest or dark shadows looming around the room ready to attack. People often hear deep and rapid breathing or harsh, approaching footsteps behind them but the paralysis prevents them from moving their head in the direction of those sounds and ensuring that they are in fact alone. The parasomnia, though not lethal but may leave a person deeply traumatized especially if they do not have any clue of what is happening to them.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Studies and surveys show that almost 25% of the people worldwide have suffered from sleep paralysis. The disorder usually termed as night terror by humans who suffer from it can be classified into two types:
- Isolated Sleep Paralysis – this occurs once or maybe twice in the lifetime of a person and lasts for several minutes. The rare occurrence often catches people off guard and since they have little or no idea about what is happening to them, they panic – worsening the suffrage even more.
- Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis – as the name shows, people having this condition may have frequent experiences of sleep paralysis i.e. they often wake up being immobilized in bed. Since it is a regular occurrence for them, it may be less shocking for them though in no way does that goes to say that it is less traumatizing. Imagine having to face the fear of something terrifying happening to you every single time you approach your bed.
Although the exact reason for sleep paralysis is not known, it is hypothesized that anything that affects or more severely, disrupts your sleeping patterns can escalate to sleep paralysis. For example,
- Lack of sleep
- Irregular sleeping patterns – especially for people who work night shifts or those who travel frequently.
- People already suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety.
- Eating fatty or high-calorie foods before going to bed.
- Excessive video games that include flashy imagery or watching TV series/movies with a lot of paranormal activities can also interfere with how your brain perceives or reacts to things.
Who is at Risk?
There is no guarantee about who may or may not suffer from sleep paralysis, but usually, children from the ages of 10 to 25 may suffer from sleep paralysis typically due to disrupted sleep patterns or unhealthy sleep routines. The high-risk groups include,
- Alcoholics or drug addicts/users – these items interfere with the normal functioning of the brain and may induce problems like sleep paralysis.
- People under a lot of stress – Stress like many other health disorders, is also a contributor to sleep paralysis. Students, professionals and even the elderly are vulnerable to stress in the modern world.
- People with a history of psychiatric and nervous disorders – such as narcolepsy, anxiety, mental ill-health etc. may also serve as triggers for the parasomnia
- Studies have shown more frequent sleep paralysis occurring in people who sleep on their backs (i.e. the supine state) as compared to those who sleep on their belly or on their sides.
Dangers of Sleep Paralysis
Although sleep paralysis itself is a non-deadly disorder, it has effects that may be considered harmful for a person’s well-being. Even though the condition is not fatal, it often leaves the sufferer with a rather disturbingly horror experience. Anxiety and PTSD are often termed as a cause of sleep paralysis but this may turn into a cycle. Anxiety may cause a person to develop sleep paralysis, the frightening experience may lead the person to have even more increased levels of anxiety and the cycle escalates. (Check out how Anxiety is Probably Alleviated by Regulating Intestine Microorganisms)
Sleep paralysis may be a symptom of much more serious and deep-rooted conditions such as narcolepsy, cataplexy etc.
Muscles of our limbs are not the only one being affected hence immobilization is not an isolated event. Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by shortness of breath and feeling of suffocation, as the muscles of our thorax and lungs are also not completely active leading to respiratory difficulties.
According to a study published in 2013, sleep paralysis may be an indicator of a neurodegenerative disease.
How to Stop and Wake up from Sleep Paralysis
Like a migraine, once the condition of sleep paralysis has started to manifest itself then there is really not much that you could do to guarantee breaking out of it. There are however a few tips which sufferers have shared on how to stop sleep paralysis. According to internet sources, the following acts have helped people during their sleep paralysis:
- Trying to move your eyes – blinking, rolling your eyes or looking around the room.
- Trying to wiggle your extremities like toes and fingers if you can. This, however, may not be possible if you are experiencing a full-body paralysis.
- Don’t Panic – Remembering that it is all happening inside your head and is not real.
- Enjoy – believe it or not but people have been reported saying that they tend to enjoy their sleep paralysis like a lucid dream. These people consider themselves being inside a horror movie and living it with the characters.
- Confiding in your partner and asking them to help by waking you up if they ever sense that there is something unusual with the way you are sleeping/lying in bed wide awake but immobilized.
- Once the condition is over, get out of bed immediately – staying in bed may cause you to slip back.
How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis
With a condition as horrific as sleep paralysis, it’s often better to play it safe than be sorry. We will share a number of tips that may help reduce the number of sleep paralysis episodes or prevent them from happening.
- Sleep on your belly or more preferably on your side instead of sleeping on your back.
- Ensuring that you get a good night’s sleep at least 6-8 hours. Try making a routine and sticking to it i.e. going to bed at roughly around the same time every night.
- Making sure that you wake up once instead of slipping in and out of sleep by hitting off the snooze button every time your alarm goes off is equally important as going to sleep on time.
- Avoiding substance use. Overuse of intoxicants such as alcohol or drugs which manipulate the functioning of our nervous system are linked to increased sleep paralysis. The evidence regarding coffee, however, is mixed.
- Avoid eating fatty and heavy meals in the evening or for dinner.
- Learn to meditate and relax your mind as well as your muscles. The practice may even come in handy when you are trying to maintain your calm in the midst of the scary episode.
- Seek comfort and help. Studies suggest that minimizing stress, being grateful and focusing on the good and happy things also serve to relax the mind and reduce sleep issues like the one in question.
Though there is no surety on how to stop sleep paralysis, following these guidelines will help you fight your battle against sleep paralysis, and we do hope that it at least serves to be a useful tool in helping you navigate your way through.