Sleep paralysis can be a highly frightening phenomenon the first time it happens to you. You wake up after a heavy night’s sleep, only to find that your entire body is paralyzed and try as you might you are unable to move. At the same time you might feel as though your chest is being sat on and while you worry about your health, you simultaneously get the distinct impression that there is someone in the room with you. You have permission to be unnerved.
However while it can be a very frightening experience for sure, sleep paralysis is in fact nothing to be afraid of and is a fairly common occurrence that can affect perfectly healthy individuals. Once you understand what it is, you’ll recognize that there really is nothing to be afraid of and that the best course of action is simply to wait until the problem wears off.
So what’s going on? Well essentially when you encounter sleep paralysis you are half awake and half asleep. You actually experience a form of sleep paralysis every night but the reason it doesn’t normally alarm you is that you are, well, asleep. The paralysis that takes over the body is called ‘hypotonia’ and this is triggered during REM sleep (when most of our dreams occur (though not all of them according to recent research)) in order to prevent us from moving around and acting out our dreams. The paralysis will wear off as soon as the hypotonia ends – normally within seconds, but occasionally longer.
So what about that feeling of being watched? This is actually something that has inspired many works of art such as Le Cauchemar in 1894, and ‘The Nightmare’ in 1781. Well while the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, what’s important to remember is that you are still half-sleeping meaning that you are likely to hallucinate or to have vague images of otherworldly beings – which mixed with your normal room setting can be highly disturbing. Interestingly some studies and theories suggest that sleep paralysis might be the cause for many reported supernatural events such as ghost sightings and alien abductions.
The causes of sleep paralysis are not completely understood. Studies suggest that around 50% of individuals may experience sleep paralysis at some time in their life where there is not necessarily any obvious medical cause.
Meanwhile however there are some conditions that are at least correlated with high incidence of sleep paralysis including narcolepsy (which causes patients to suddenly fall asleep without warning). Other potential risk factors include sleeping in a supine or face upwards position, increased stress levels, environmental changes, lucid dreaming or alcohol consumption. Each of these things likely disturbs the REM sleep to some degree causing the individual to awaken partially though not fully and to experience lingering remnants of their dream as a result.
The condition is often acute and not a repeated encounter meaning that treatment is not usually necessary beyond education and reassurance. However if the problem does persist then the patient may want to try improving their quality of sleep, addressing sources of stress in their waking lives, and possibly being checked over for narcolepsy.
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