Ok, we’ve seen that movie where someone wakes up unable to move, hijinks ensue, and that person dies. But is that really possible? The short answer is no.
Sleep paralysis can be a scary concept, but it’s not dangerous. In fact, it’s a vital function of your sleep process, and without it, you’re far more likely to injure yourself. Let’s find out how and answer a few questions you may have about what’s going on in the first place.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis happens when your mind is awake, but your body hasn’t quite gotten the memo yet. Most of us don’t experience this incongruence, but for those who have, it can be a challenging experience to get over.
When you fall asleep, your body is “paralyzed” temporarily to prevent you from acting out your dreams. Sleepwalkers are excellent examples of what happens when that vital function is disabled. As you wander through your dreams, your body behaves as if it were awake, sending you to the refrigerator in the best (and funniest) case, or out the door into danger at the worst.
Falling asleep, waking up, and sleep paralysis should be an expertly coordinated event in which you never feel the effects while you’re awake. For some, it doesn’t happen so smoothly.
Why Does Sleep Paralysis Happen?
Experts aren’t sure what causes some people to be awake while feeling the effects of paralysis, but the most significant theory is a difficulty transitioning between sleep stages. Your brain can’t seem to coordinate each stage, signaling to your body too soon, so you feel it as you’re falling asleep, or not soon enough, so your mind wakes up before your physical body does.
REM sleep stages are typically when the body is paralyzed because that’s when our minds begin to dream. With sleep paralysis, that stage begins to spill over into others, including light sleep, and even wakefulness.
In a large study from the UK, researchers found a possible link between genetics and instances of sleep paralysis. Researchers studied a group of over 800 participants, all twins or siblings, and noticed that genetics seemed to be a factor in over half of the research participants who experienced sleep paralysis.
People that tend to experience this phenomenon are more likely to have a particular gene variant, but genetics wasn’t the only factor. Participants also experienced frequent disrupted sleep in general, as well as anxiety. People also were more likely to have suffered a traumatic event at some point in the past. This all suggests that a combination of genetics and life experience gave people a tendency towards sleep paralysis.
What Are Some Effects?
It often causes hallucinations, since the part of the brain responsible for dreaming could also be triggered. Common stories include a presence in the room, leading to fantastic stories from the past of being visited by demons, angels, and all sorts of entities. You may also experience strange smells or even sensations (flying or falling, for example).
It can’t stop your breathing (because no one would survive REM sleep if that were the case), but it does restrict your freedom of movement enough to cause pressure. Many people describe a feeling like a weight on their chest and the fear that they won’t be able to breathe. Many people also panic, taking short breaths and making the feeling of suffocating even worse.
The good news is that none of it is real! The bad news is that you may not realize that when you’re in the midst of it, causing panic and making those feelings infinitely worse.
What Do I Do About Sleep Paralysis?
If you’re wondering how to stop sleep paralysis from happening, you may not be asking the right question. Genetics seems to play a significant role in whether you’ll experience sleep paralysis, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to repeat the experience. Prevention is your best bet. Here are some things you can do to lessen your chances.
Get Enough Rest
Besides genetics, sleep deprivation seems to trigger issues with sleep stages. When you don’t get enough sleep in general, your body and brain may lose their sync, causing the effects of REM sleep to spill over into other stages.
If you have trouble falling asleep, you could try a few things to encourage better rest. Get rid of electronic devices for at least an hour before you go to bed to allow your brain to relax. Get in the habit of a soothing bedtime routine, such as a cup of (decaf) tea and a book before you turn out the lights. Avoid working in bed, so your brain knows that bed equals rest.
You could also practice mindfulness meditation if anxiety or worry is a big factor in your sleeplessness. Learning to control your racing thoughts can help you relax even when you begin to experience anxiety.
If you have other underlying issues for sleeplessness, such as undiagnosed depression or Sleep Apnea, getting treatment can help you get back on track with your sleep. Sleep Apnea can cause a host of problems with your life, not just with rest, and only a doctor can tell you for sure if that’s what you’re experiencing. Once you get a diagnosis, you can receive treatment that could help you get a more restful sleep, possibly stopping your sleep paralysis for good.
Depression could be another factor in your sleep deprivation. Treatment for depression can also help ease your symptoms and promote a healthier sleep cycle. Your doctor can help you with a treatment plan that works for your individual case and gives you a better chance of uninterrupted sleep.
Drugs, caffeine, alcohol, and other types of stimulants can also keep you awake at night, causing issues later on and possibly short-wiring your brain’s sleep cycle pattern. Avoiding substances you know will keep you awake at least three hours before your bedtime reduces the chances of you experiencing that interrupted sleep that can cause paralysis later. Caffeine, in particular, should be avoided even longer. Stop consuming caffeine after 2:00 p.m., and pay attention to all forms of caffeine, not just coffee.
Life With Sleep Paralysis
For most people, there is no treatment for sleep paralysis. Instead, most doctors will focus on prevention and healthy sleep habits to reduce the number of occurrences. It’s possible to cut down on the number of times you experience sleep paralysis by following your doctor’s plan carefully.
Understand that you aren’t alone and that the episode will pass. Once you’ve had the experience a few times, you’ll get better at recognizing the signs and will be able to stay calm until your body receives the signal to wake up. That experience alone can be the best way to reduce its effects and the panic associated with feeling like you can’t breathe.
Sleep Paralysis isn’t going to kill you, no matter what the movies say. Most of what you experience during these few seconds is a hallucination, and understanding what’s going on can keep you calm until it passes. You don’t have to fear for your life. Just make sure that you’re doing everything you can to receive enough rest and to stay calm. You’re safe, and you aren’t alone.
Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Tell us all about your experiences and what you’re doing to avoid those episodes in the future in the comments below. Also, be sure to share this with anyone who may be struggling with this condition.