What is Sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is the sensation of being conscious but unable to move any of your skeletal muscles. The experience can also be accompanied by hallucinations, which led many in the Middle Ages to blame the phenomenon on demons holding down the body. However, demons aside, most people usually find that sleep paralysis passes within a few seconds or minutes, although it can still be deeply upsetting and frightening to experience.
Occurence

Sleep paralysis occurs when you start to become conscious but your body is still paralysed by sleep. It can be an uncomfortable and upsetting experience making you feel as though you are trapped in your own body, unable to move or cry out for help – in fact centuries ago sleep paralysis was believed to be the work of demons! Despite this poor reputation, sleep paralysis isn’t usually something to worry about and normally passes within a few minutes. However, today I’m going to take a look at some possible causes of this phenomenon and what you can do to reduce  your chances of developing it.


But why does it occur? Well there’s no official cause but more sleep scientists theorise that it’s related to REM sleep. During REM sleep your skeletal muscles are essentially frozen, unable to move, while your brain becomes more active – this is, after all, the phase of sleep where you are most likely to dream!

However, if you are waking up, sometimes you can become conscious during REM sleep, in which case you’ll find it difficult to move as your muscles are still locked in place. The hallucinations experienced by some during sleep paralysis are thought to be a result of your conscious mind overlapping with your unconscious mind so you start to experience dreams.

Symptoms

Those afflicted with sleep paralysis are often unable to move their bodies or speak immediately after waking up. This can last one to two minutes, according to the Mayo Clinic. People experiencing sleep paralysis may also feel a weight on their chest or a choking feeling. 

In the past, it was believed that demons caused sleep paralysis by holding people down or sitting on their chest. This was often due to hallucinations, which are a common symptom during sleep paralysis because the brain is still in a dream state. People have reported seeing ghosts, demons and other strange apparitions while experiencing paralysis.

Causes

During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep the brain has vivid dreams, while the muscles of the body are essentially turned off. While sleeping, the muscles are unable to move so that the person won't be able to act out dreams with their body. Sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up before REM is finished. The person will be conscious, but the body's ability to move hasn't been turned back on yet.

Several things can bring on episodes of sleep paralysis. For example, sleep deprivation, some medications and some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, are triggers. Also, sleep paralysis is commonly seen in patients with narcolepsy, said Dr. Shelby Harris, director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at the Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York.

Prevention and treatment

For most people, there is no treatment for sleep paralysis. The key is prevention and the treatment of any underlying causes.

After one episode of sleep paralysis, it may not be necessary to get a doctor's appointment right away. "If you have rare episodes of sleep paralysis, but haven't been seen by a sleep specialist, make sure your sleep hygiene is solid. For example, sleep paralysis can be a sign that you're sleep deprived," Harris told Live Science. Harris suggested that those experiencing sleep paralysis should make sure to get enough sleep on a regular basis, avoid alcohol, nicotine and drugs all night, starting three hours before bedtime. They should also limit caffeine after 2 p.m. and keep electronics out of the bedroom.

"If these things don't help, and you're having episodes that are becoming somewhat more frequent, see a sleep specialist to see if there's any underlying medical disorder that might be causing the sleep paralysis.

It is normal for your muscles to be paralysed at certain times when you are asleep. Sleep paralysis occurs when the mechanism that causes your muscles to relax during sleep temporarily persists after you have woken up.

Sometimes, sleep paralysis can be a symptom of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a relatively rare sleep disorder that causes a person to fall asleep suddenly and unexpectedly, disrupting their normal sleep pattern.

Sleep paralysis is a fascinating phenomenon. Although we are gradually coming to understand the nature of such attacks, we still have a great deal to learn not only about the underlying neuropsychological causes but also about the complex ways in which the same core experience can be interpreted in different ways according to prevailing cultural beliefs. Most urgently, there is a need for greater awareness of the nature of the sleep paralysis amongst the general public and, particularly, amongst health professionals in order to minimise the anxiety and distress that often result from such attacks.

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