Sleep Paralysis: How and Why it Happens

sleep paralysis how and why it happens

For anyone who has ever experienced sleep paralysis, they know how harrowing it can feel. It can be overwhelming: frozen in place, feeling as if there is a pressure on the chest, and threats rising up all around, with no way to escape.

Sleep paralysis can rear its ugly head in times of stress and high anxiety. Although there is no real bodily harm attached to this sleep disorder, it can be a frightening ordeal to undergo, causing anxiety to sleep at night. In rare cases, the feelings experienced during an episode can cause clinically significant levels of distress.

Sleep paralysis is categorized as a parasomnia. A condition that falls under sleep disorders which involve abnormal behaviours, perceptions, and emotions.

Symptoms and Effects of Sleep Paralysis

Much like the name suggests, sleep paralysis happens when the body is asleep, and paralysed, but the mind is not. An individual feels frozen in place, but their senses are working overtime. Feelings of being watched by someone or something are prevalent, hallucinations of menacing figures lurking in the shadows, followed by the feeling of intense fear. The exact scene and feelings might change from person to person, but the overall experience is never a pleasant one.

Typical effects of sleep paralysis include:

Episodes last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations of this disorder typically fall into one of three scenarios:
Sometimes individuals can feel 1 or 2 of these hallucinations at the same time.

Why Does Sleep Paralysis Happen?

When we go to bed at night, we cycle between two states of sleep: NREM, non-rapid eye movement, and REM, or rapid eye movement. A full NREM-REM cycle lasts about 90 minutes, with the unconscious switching between these two states.

In NREM state, the body is relaxed while the mind focuses on other nightly responsibilities. When we switch over to the REM, this is when dreaming happens. At this time, the brain freezes the body, effectively paralysing itself as a form of self-preservation, as not to accidentally begin acting out the dream.

Sleep paralysis happens during the transition into or out of the REM state. Brain signals get crossed, and the body and mind become unsynchronised from the sleep process: the body stays paralysed, but the conscious is now awake.

At this time, the brain kicks into survival gear, becoming oversensitive in this heightened state. The subconscious reads everything around it as a threat causing hallucinations of evil spirits or figures, attached with feelings of fright or dread.

After a few minutes, but what can feel like ages, the paralysis wears off and the body is able to move again.

Who Can Get Sleep Paralysis?

Approximately one in four healthy individuals will experience sleep paralysis at some time.

Sleep paralysis can happen to anyone. However, it occurs more prominently in adolescents and young adults in their 20s and 30s. Triggers like stress, anxiety, jet lag, and sleep deprivation can cause episodes to increase in frequency. Irregular sleep patterns or poor sleep quality can also cause sleep paralysis to occur.

However, frequent sleep paralysis could be a sign of a more significant health issue at play. Ongoing episodes could be a result of Narcolepsy, clinical depression, anxiety disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, hypertension, or PTSD. If you are experiencing continued episodes, then speak to a doctor about your situation.

How Can It Be Stopped?

Sleep hygiene is the number one way to prevent episodes from happening. This term refers to various practices and habits revolving around sleep. Establishing a bed time and wake up time, daily exercise routine, and limited caffeine intake are all great sleep hygiene practices. Daily exposure to sunlight helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle too.

Cognitive behavioural therapies are currently in development and seem promising in cases.