Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious, but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep.
Of all the weird sensations that one can experience, perhaps there is nothing stranger than not being able to move; more specifically, not being able to move while being consciously aware of one's surroundings.
If you've ever woken up at night unable to move, here's what it means!
Sleep paralysis is a strange and potentially frightening phenomenon. Essentially, the person experiencing sleep paralysis can't move any part of their body, but yet remains conscious. Those that experience sleep paralyses are often terrified - an understandable reaction from not having voluntary control over one's movements.
Fortunately, this is a relatively common occurrence and does not cause any physical harm to the body. Sleep paralysis happens during one of two stages -"hypnagogic" and "hypnopompic." Hypnagogic sleep paralysis occurs before falling asleep, while hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs as one wakes from REM sleep.
As we fall asleep, our body becomes deeply relaxed while our minds concurrently become less aware. However, when hypnagogic sleep paralysis occurs, the mind remains aware while the body achieves an involuntary state of relaxation. The person than realizes that they're unable to move despite their efforts, often leading to feelings of panic.
During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, our muscles are paralyzed so that we don't act out our dreams. When one experiences hypnopompic sleep paralysis, a certain part of the brain wakes sooner. This wakeful state does not affect the part of the brain responsible for REM paralysis, however. The result is a certain degree of wakefulness and no voluntary control over muscles.
Who does this happen to?
Some people are fortunate enough to experience sleep paralysis just once or twice in their life, if ever. Unfortunately, some people experience this phenomenon often - even multiple times a week. Individuals with mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are more prone to frequent episodes of sleep paralysis. People affected by sleep apnea; people on specific types of medication, and those with an underlying sleep condition may experience more frequent episodes of sleep paralysis.
Here is the full list of risk factors:
- Lack of sleep
- Frequent changes in sleep schedule
- Mental conditions, such as stress or bipolar disorder
- Sleeping on the back
- Sleep problems such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps
- Certain types of medication, such as those with ADHD
- Substance abuse
Signs & Symptoms:
Under almost every circumstance, individuals that experience sleep paralysis are unable to move or speak from a few seconds to a few minutes. As mentioned, this usually occurs during the initial stages of falling asleep and almost immediately after waking up. While sleep paralysis often requires no type of treatment, a doctor may further inquire into other areas that pertain to sleep health. Should sleep conditions linger or worsen, the medical professional may then refer to a sleep specialist.
Because sleep paralysis occurs naturally, there is generally no prescribed treatment. However, if a medical professional detects an underlying condition in the process of diagnosis, a treatment regimen may be in order. Such prescribed treatments are:
- Implementation of a sleeping schedule
- Prescription for an anti-depressant
- Referral to a mental health professional
- Referral to a sleep specialist
- Treatment of any underlying sleep disorders
- Prescription for sleeping aids
- Often times, making adequate sleep a priority while limiting unnecessary stress (especially before bedtime) will suffice as a deterrent to sleep paralysis. Because of the enigmatic nature of the condition, the effectiveness of formal and informal treatments to alleviate it is ambiguous at best.
- As a rule of thumb, one episode of sleep paralysis does not usually mandate a trip to the doctor's office. Health professionals recommend that those with rare episodes of sleep paralysis pay particular attention to their sleeping habits, as sleep deprivation almost assuredly increases the likelihood of an episode.
- Other recommendations include avoiding or severely restricting alcohol/drugs, nicotine and caffeine. It's also recommended to keep electronic devices out of the bedroom in order to establish healthy sleep patterns.
- Of course, it is very possible that a sleep paralysis episode will occur regardless. If that's the case, try and remember to stay calm and realize that it will pass.