Sleep Paralysis: What it is and Why it Happens
Sleep paralysis sounds like something only seen in a horror flick. You awake from a sound sleep, only to feel like you can’t move. You attempt to move your arms, legs, and even your head, but find that you are frozen in your position. As the paralysis continues, sheer panic overcomes you. Then, as soon as it comes on, it’s over, leaving you wondering what just happened. While this experience may seem unbelievable, indeed it is a real occurrence.
And it’s more common than you might think. According to WebMD, as many as one in four of us may experience this phenomenon at one point or another.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a temporary feeling, experience, phenomenon of being conscious and awake, yet are unable to move. Some people also are unable to speak and may feel pressure or begin choking. Other people report feeling an evil presence, hearing voices, or being touched. The experience typically comes on upon awakening, but can also happen when falling asleep. While sometimes linked to narcolepsy, which is a condition leading a person to take uncontrollable and excessive naps, sleep paralysis also occurs in people who have no narcoleptic signs.
Why Does Sleep Paralysis Happen?
Sleep scientists believe that the experience occurs as a signal that your body and mind isn’t moving through the normal stages of sleep, such as REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) very smoothly. The first stage of sleep is NREM, and can take up as much as three quarters of your total sleeping time. During your NREM sleep stage, your body is in the relaxation and restoration mode. Immediately following NREM, your sleep stage shifts to REM. In the REM stage, your eyes move rapidly and you dream. However, the signals to your muscles are blocked during REM sleep. Therefore, if you become conscious before your REM sleep stage has concluded, you may become aware that you cannot move or even speak.
Although to the person experiencing sleep paralysis, it can be truly frightening, rarely is it a serious or dangerous health condition, nor is it an indication of an underlying psychiatric problem in most cases.
Factors Linked to Sleep Paralysis
Both women and men can experience this phenomenon, which is often first experienced during the teenage years. Common factors that have been linked to sleep paralysis include:
- Family history of sleep paralysis
- Sleep deprivation
- Sleep schedule inconsistencies (circadian rhythm disturbances)
- Sleeping on the back
- Bipolar disorder
- Nighttime leg cramps
- Some medications
- Substance abuse
Is There A Way to Stop Sleep Paralysis Episodes?
While there is no way to definitely stop these episodes from occurring, there are things you can do to minimize them.
- Avoid becoming sleep deprived
- Minimize stress
- Exercise consistently, but not right before bedtime
- Keep a regular sleep schedule
- Try sleeping on your side instead of your back
Unless the episodes are very frequent, say occurring once a week or more for six months, or prevent you from routinely getting a good nights sleep, no professional medical treatment is needed. However, if your sleep paralysis episodes are frequent, be sure to see your physician who can check for other sleep disorders or prescribe medications.
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