I had a little episode of sleep paralysis this morning and I thought I would share the details of it with you all in case you too have episodes of sleep paralysis and you don’t know WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU! First of all, sleep paralysis is scary. Your brain is awake but you can’t move anything or say anything. When you don’t know what’s happening to you, it’s a really frightening experience. Even when you do know what’s happening to you, it’s still scary. Here’s a brief overview of the disorder:
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis consists of a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset (called hypnogogic or predormital form) or upon awakening (called hypnopompic or postdormtal form).
Sleep paralysis may also be referred to as isolated sleep paralysis, familial sleep paralysis, hynogogic or hypnopompic paralysis, predormital or postdormital paralysis
What are the symptoms?
- A complaint of inability to move the trunk or limbs at sleep onset or upon awakening
- Presence of brief episodes of partial or complete skeletal muscle paralysis
- Episodes can be associated with hypnagogic hallucinations or dream-like mentation (act or use of the brain)
Polysomnography (a sleep recording) shows at least one of the following:
- suppression of skeletal muscle tone
- a sleep onset REM period
- dissociated REM sleep
Is it harmful?
Sleep paralysis is most often associated with narcolepsy, a neurological condition in which the person has uncontrollable naps. However, there are many people who experience sleep paralysis without having signs of narcolepsy. Sometimes it runs in families. There is no known explanation why some people experience this paralysis. It is not harmful, although most people report feeling very afraid because they do not know what is happening, and within minutes they gradually or abruptly are able to move again; the episode is often terminated by a sound or a touch on the body.
In some cases, when hypnogogic hallucinations are present, people feel that someone is in the room with them, some experience the feeling that someone or something is sitting on their chest and they feel impending death and suffocation. That has been called the “Hag Phenomena” and has been happening to people over the centuries. These things cause people much anxiety and terror, but there is no physical harm.
What else can you tell me about sleep paralysis?
- Some people with disrupted sleep schedules or circadian rhythm disturbances experience sleep paralysis
- A study found that 35% of subjects with isolated sleep paralysis also reported a history of wake panic attacks unrelated to the experience of paralysis
- Sixteen percent of these persons with isolated sleep paralysis met the criteria for panic disorder
How can I stop the sleep paralysis?
In severe cases, where episodes take place at least once a week for 6 months, medication may be used. You may be able to minimize the episodes by following good sleep hygiene:
- getting enough sleep
- reduce stress
- exercise regularly (but not too close to bedtime)
- keep a regular sleep schedule
Even though I know now what is happening to me, I still have to work to control my breathing and talk myself out of panicking. This morning’s episode happened while I was just coming out of REM, so my eyeballs were moving rapidly back and forth and I had no control over them. That’s the first time that’s ever happened, and I have to say I’m not looking forward to that happening to me again. I find that sleep paralysis most often happens to me after I’ve had a migraine or a severe headache. I’m not sure if it’s a result of the headache, the medication I take to relieve the headache, or just a coincidence, but there is some evidence to suggest that sleep paralysis is a symptom of a migraine.
In addition, the paralysis may be accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (hypnopompic or hypnagogic) and an acute sense of danger. Sleep paralysis is particularly frightening to the individual because of the vividness of such hallucinations. The hallucinatory element to sleep paralysis makes it even more likely that someone will interpret the experience as a dream, since completely fanciful or dream-like objects may appear in the room alongside one’s normal vision. Some scientists have proposed this condition as an explanation for alien abductions and ghostly encounters. A study by Susan Blackmore and Marcus Cox (the Blackmore-Cox study) of the University of the West of England supports the suggestion that reports of alien abductions are related to sleep paralysis rather than to temporal lobe lability.
In surveys from Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria, 20% to 60% of individuals reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. A study conducted by Sedaghat-Hamedani F. et al. has investigated the prevalence of sleep paralysis among Iranian medical students. 24.1% of students reported experiencing sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. The same result was reported among Japanese, Nigerian, Kuwaiti, Sudanese and American students.
Many people who commonly enter sleep paralysis also suffer from narcolepsy.
Some reports read that various factors increase the likelihood of both paralysis and hallucinations. These include:
- Sleeping in a face upwards or supine position
- Increased stress
- Sudden environmental/lifestyle changes
- A lucid dream that immediately precedes the episode.
- Excessive consumption of alcohol coupled with lack of adequate sleep.
I’m lucky enough not to experience the hallucinations, but the frustration of not having control over your own body is enough to contend with without having hallucinations along with it! My suggestion is to try to talk yourself into going back to sleep so at least you’ll be unconscious and not panicking. I couldn’t talk myself into it this morning though, and when I finally did jerk fully awake and had spent several long seconds flexing my hands to assure myself that I did have control back of my body, I was reminded of that poem A cat falls asleep and dreams she is a woman. When the cat awakes she is no longer sure if she is a cat or a woman. Am I awake right now? Am I really typing this? Are you really reading it? Is anything really real? Maybe you ARE really crazy! Or I am…