Sleep paralysis occurs when a person wakes up and is aware that they are fully awake but cannot move. It can be downright scary for anyone who experiences it, even though episodes only last from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. According to Healthline, “sleep paralysis [is defined as] a temporary loss of muscle function while you’re sleeping. It typically occurs as a person is falling asleep, shortly after they have fallen asleep, or while they are waking up”. Although an individual’s senses or awareness are intact, they may feel like there is pressure on them, or like someone is choking them. Needless to say, this condition can cause a severe bout of anxiety but is not life-threatening. Sometimes, it accompanies other sleep disorders like narcolepsy and insomnia. Hallucinating is common among people who experience sleep paralysis, which contributes to anxiety. According to the American Academy of Sleep, most people who suffer from this condition, usually experience it for the first time between the ages of 14 and 17. Studies show that 25% to 50% of Americans have experienced sleep paralysis at least one time in their life.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis? What are the Risk Factors?
Sleep paralysis can be caused by a disruption of sleep such as being jetlagged or switching work schedules. Studies have shown that sleeping on your back may increase your chances of experiencing sleep paralysis, as well as a lack of sleep. According to Healthline, sleep paralysis can run in families, but there is no scientific evidence that the condition is hereditary. Some groups of people are at a higher risk than others. For example, the following list includes groups that are considered a high risk of experiencing sleep paralysis:
- anxiety disorders
- major depression
- bipolar disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Sleep Paralysis or Sleep Apnea?
Sometimes sleep paralysis can be confused with sleep apnea. Sleep paralysis is less common than sleep apnea, and it is different from waking up and not being able to breathe. Although some sleep apnea patients struggle to regain full use of their limbs, the root of the problem can be something entirely different. There are a few key differences between the two conditions:
- Awareness: Sleep apnea patients are usually not aware that they have a condition. Ironically, it is their partner or family member who notices that they have a problem breathing while asleep. A patient of sleep paralysis is fully conscious and aware of what is going on but cannot move.
- Snoring: In sleep apnea patients, snoring is common unless it is linked to central sleep apnea, which stems from a problem within the brain. Snoring is not a symptom of sleep paralysis, but a person can snore and experience sleep paralysis, which may stem from another disorder.
- Hallucination: It is common for a person suffering from sleep paralysis to hallucinate, but it is rare for it to happen with sleep apnea.
- Paralysis: Sleep apnea is not associated with paralysis. Paralysis is the number one indicator of sleep paralysis but can manifest in different forms. For example, blinking or swallowing can be paralyzed as well, which is even more terrifying.
Narcolepsy and Sleep Paralysis
According to The Mayo Clinic, “narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep”. Those suffering from narcolepsy may have dream-like hallucinations when falling asleep or waking up. During this time, folks with narcolepsy may experience the normal muscle paralysis that occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage. The hallucinations and paralysis are caused by a disrupted boundary between dream sleep and waking up. Instead of gradually entering REM at the end of a sleep stage, folks with narcolepsy will abruptly go into the REM sleep stage.
Preventing Sleep Paralysis
Although sleep paralysis is not life-threatening, it can be frightening and unpleasant. There are several steps that one can take to reduce the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis.
- Reduce stress.
- Exercise regularly but not close to bedtime.
- Get good quality sleep.
- Maintain a sleep schedule.
- Pay attention to all medications and their side effects.
- Sleep on your side.
- Avoid heavy meals before bed.
- Relax and unwind before bedtime.
- Avoid electronics before bedtime.
- Get more sleep if you are getting less than seven hours of sleep.
- Record your nightmares and look for patterns that trigger episodes.
How to Wake Up from Sleep Paralysis?
If you find yourself suffering frequently suffering from sleep paralysis, there are some strategies that you can do to break the paralysis.
- Surrender: If you feel like you are being held down or feel pressure then go with the pressure, and completely relax. So, if you feel like someone is pushing you down into the mattress, then allow yourself to relax into the direction of the pressure. Your brain understands that you are going through sleep paralysis, but if you resist, it will only worsen your emotional response.
- Wiggle a Toe: If you try to sit up while experiencing sleep paralysis, it can be extremely difficult. However, you can focus on simply moving one toe or another extremity to break the paralysis. Sometimes you can attempt to make a face, wiggle your nose, or try to smile to break the paralysis. It may take a couple of attempts, but it will eventually break the paralysis.
- Slow Breathing: Slow breathing should accompany relaxation and calmness. It is important to practice mindful breathing, which will help you remain calm while waiting for the paralysis to break. Panicking only triggers hyperventilation.
- Make A Noise: It may be difficult to move, blink, or even swallow. However, some people find it useful to focus on making a small noise. Others find that they can break the paralysis by attempting to cough. It normal for people who suffer from sleep paralysis to make humming noises. You can train a partner to wake you up if they hear you making a humming noise. A light tap, or a slight shake from someone can also break the paralysis.