Historical Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder that has puzzled humans for centuries. Throughout history, it has been described in various ways and often associated with supernatural entities like demons, the old hag, and alien abductors. Despite the terror it often causes, sleep researchers suggest that sleep paralysis is a natural occurrence that happens when the body fails to transition smoothly through the stages of sleep. In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and treatments of sleep paralysis.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where a person is conscious but unable to move. It occurs when the body transitions between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, a person may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking. Sleep paralysis may accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy.
When Does Sleep Paralysis Occur?
Sleep paralysis can occur at two different times. If it occurs when a person is falling asleep, it is known as hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. If it occurs as a person is waking up, it is called hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.
What Happens During Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis?
As a person falls asleep, their body slowly relaxes. Typically, a person becomes less aware of this change. However, if a person remains or becomes aware while falling asleep, they may notice that they cannot move or speak.
What Happens During Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis?
During sleep, the body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One cycle of REM and NREM sleep lasts approximately 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and takes up to 75% of a person’s overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, the body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, a person’s sleep shifts to REM. Their eyes move rapidly, and dreams occur, but the rest of their body remains very relaxed. Their muscles are “turned off” during REM sleep. If a person becomes aware before the REM cycle has finished, they may notice that they cannot move or speak.
Who Develops Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a relatively common condition that affects up to four out of every ten people. This condition is often first noticed in the teen years, but men and women of any age can have it. Sleep paralysis may run in families. Other factors that may be linked to sleep paralysis include lack of sleep, changes in sleep schedule, mental conditions like stress or bipolar disorder, sleeping on the back, other sleep disorders like narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps, use of certain medications like those for ADHD, and substance abuse.
Diagnosing Sleep Paralysis
If a person finds themselves unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes when falling asleep or waking up, they may have isolated recurrent sleep paralysis. In most cases, there is no need to treat this condition. However, a person should consult their doctor if they experience anxiety related to their symptoms, feel very tired during the day, or if their symptoms keep them up at night.
A doctor may gather more information about a person’s sleep health by asking them to describe their symptoms and keep a sleep diary for a few weeks. They may also discuss their health history, including any known sleep disorders or family history of sleep disorders, and refer the person to a sleep specialist for further evaluation. In some cases, overnight sleep studies or daytime nap studies may be conducted to ensure that the person does not have another sleep disorder.
Treatment Options for Sleep Paralysis
For most people, sleep paralysis is not a serious medical condition and does not require treatment. However, if you are experiencing sleep paralysis frequently or it is causing significant distress or anxiety, your doctor may recommend some treatment options.
Improving Sleep Habits
One of the most effective ways to manage sleep paralysis is by improving your sleep habits. This may include maintaining a regular sleep schedule, getting enough sleep each night (usually 7-9 hours for adults), and avoiding stimulating activities before bedtime such as watching TV or using electronic devices.
Treating Underlying Conditions
If sleep paralysis is a symptom of an underlying sleep disorder such as narcolepsy, your doctor may recommend treatment for the underlying condition. This may include medications such as stimulants or antidepressants, as well as lifestyle changes such as avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
Treating Mental Health Issues
Sleep paralysis can sometimes be linked to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. If you are experiencing these types of issues, your doctor may recommend treatment such as therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
If your doctor suspects that your sleep paralysis may be caused by another sleep disorder, they may recommend a sleep study. During a sleep study, you will be monitored while you sleep to identify any underlying sleep disorders or other issues that may be causing your symptoms.
Managing Sleep Paralysis at Home
There are also some steps you can take at home to manage sleep paralysis and reduce the frequency or severity of your symptoms. Some tips to consider include:
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Maintain a regular sleep schedule, avoid stimulating activities before bedtime, and create a relaxing sleep environment.
- Try relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, meditation, or yoga may help you relax and reduce stress, which can contribute to sleep paralysis.
- Change sleeping position: Sleeping on your back can increase your risk of sleep paralysis. Try sleeping on your side or stomach instead.
- Talk to someone: If you experience sleep paralysis, talking to a trusted friend or family member may help you feel less anxious or scared.
- See a doctor: If sleep paralysis is causing significant distress or interfering with your ability to sleep, it may be time to see a doctor.
Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, but it is not usually a sign of a serious underlying medical condition. Most people who experience sleep paralysis do not require treatment and can manage their symptoms through good sleep hygiene and stress reduction techniques. However, if you are experiencing frequent or severe sleep paralysis, or if it is causing significant distress or anxiety, it is important to talk to your doctor. They can help you identify any underlying issues and recommend appropriate treatment options.