What Really Happens When You Have Sleep Paralysis?

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Do you suffer from a strange sleep phenomenon, called sleep paralysis?

You wake up in the middle of the night. You can’t move, except for your eyes, which dart frantically underneath fluttering, heavy lids. You feel a heavy presence or menacing shadowy figure pressing down on your chest, squeezing the air from your lungs and throat. You want to scream but you can’t.

No matter how many times it happens the panic always sets in… like the devil is paying you a visit while you are sleeping.

Help! I can’t move

There are many factors ? social and psychological ? that can influence the prevalence of sleep paralysis. Researchers recently analysed the data of 35 studies with more than 36,000 participants and found that 7.6 per cent of the general population experiences sleep paralysis.

This number rises to 28.3 per cent in high-risk groups, like students who have a disrupted sleep pattern. And up to 31.9 per cent of people who suffer with mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, can experience these terrifying nocturnal episodes.

According to Dr. Daniel Denis, a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher at the Sleep Paralysis Project, “When you’re experiencing sleep paralysis, you become conscious. The idea is that your mind wakes up but your body doesn’t.”

Dr. Denis explains that when we sleep we go through three or four stages of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and one REM state. You can have dreams in any of these stages, but it is during REM that you will experience your most vivid dreams ? the kind that feel almost real.

People naturally become paralyzed during REM, probably to prevent themselves from acting out their dreams. It’s a state known as REM atonia.

Many people who wake up during REM simply open their eyes and quickly begin to move around. But according to Dr. Denis, those suffering from sleep paralysis experience “a sort of failure of the molecular clock.” Meaning REM atonia continues after they’ve woken up. Most sleep paralysis episodes last only a few seconds to a minute, but in much rarer cases, sufferers can require 10 to 15 minutes before they fully regain motion.

As for the sense that “something” is sitting on your chest… well, that’s a bit more difficult to explain.

According to Dr. Baland Jalal, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, one possible explanation could be that this “hallucination” is the brain’s way of clearing out confusion. Basically, it’s your brain’s interpretation of your physical self.

Dr. Denis, however, believes that this “unwanted intruder” might have something to do with an over-active amygdala ? the part of the brain responsible for fear (among other things). He explains: “You wake up with your amygdala screaming, ‘There’s a threat!’ So your brain has to invent something to fix the paradox of the amygdala being active for no reason.” While the amygdala remains active during REM sleep, total paralysis right after awakening can send it into overdrive.

Sleep paralysis can be hereditary, but nearly 40 per cent of people have reported some incident of this experience at least once in their lives. Factors like lack of sleep, sleep disturbances, jet lag, and shift work can increase someone’s likelihood of experiencing it. Sleep-paralysis episodes have also been linked to hypertension, seizures, and narcolepsy.

Beyond trying to reduce stress and getting plenty of sleep, avoiding sleeping on your back can help prevent sleep paralysis from reoccurring. And according to Dr. Denis, if you do wake and find yourself unable to move, focus all your energy on wiggling a toe or finger. Once you move a muscle, you break the paralysis.


Disclaimer: Bear in mind the material contained in this article is provided for information purposes only. We are not addressing anyone’s personal situation. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.

Sources:

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t move ? here’s why, published online 30.01.15, uk.businessinsider.com

Here’s What’s Really Happening When You Wake Up And Feel Paralyzed, published online 20.01.15, uk.businessinsider.com

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  • I had this a lot when I was 23, I always sleep on my side never on my back. My Incubus was always behind me even though my back was to the wall. She was huge at least 18 stone in weight and she pushed me down with one hand on my left shoulder and one on my left hip and as the bed springs twanged and creaked under the extra load she would cackle and gurgle. I brought myself out of it by deep breathing because apart from my eyes only my lungs were working. As soon as I could I looked round but of course she was always gone. At first it was terrifying, then it became a nuisance, and finally when I had gotten used to it I just relaxed and let it happen. I still get it occasionally but as I now sleep on a hard bed or on the floor I don’t get the creaking bed spring effect which I was never able to explain.

  • My partner suffer with these night terrors. I think I’m going to force him to sleep on his side… but then there’s the snoring. Sounds like separate bedrooms is my only solution.

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