A phenomenon that affects around 8% of the population, sleep paralysis is a relatively common condition that occurs during one of the stages of sleep - REM. Most common in adolescents and young adulthood, it can impact even the healthiest of people.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak that happens when you’re just falling asleep or waking up. It can be very scary, and only lasts for a few minutes at most, so it’s important to remember that it isn’t real.
Most people experience sleep paralysis a few times in their lives, but on rare occasions it can happen to people multiple times a month.
When your body is in the REM stage of sleep, it can sometimes suddenly wake up. It’s a rare occurrence, but it can still happen. It will mostly likely be just as you’re about to wake up, but it can happen as you’re falling asleep, too.
Because your body is in REM and is essentially paralyzed, you wake up still feeling this way. The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being awake and entirely aware of your surroundings, but unable to move or react to anything going on around you.
What is REM Sleep?
In order for us to understand what sleep paralysis is, we have to understand what REM sleep is. Sleep paralysis happens during a stage of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement).
REM is the stage of sleep where the brain is most active and your body is fully resting. Because of this, the body almost paralyzes itself in order to attain maximum rest levels. REM sleep occurs roughly between four to six times a night, and is also the time in your rest when you’ll be dreaming.
This is another reason as to why the body goes into a state of paralysis, so you don’t physically act out your dreams while you’re in them.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Common suggestions as to why we suffer with sleep paralysis are things such as sleep deprivation (think jet lag or pulling an all nighter), irregular sleeping patterns, narcolepsy and pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
There’s no clear answer as to what causes sleep paralysis exactly. While the factors above do contribute towards it, there’s no conclusive evidence as to why it actually happens.
Throughout history, many cultures have linked sleep paralysis to demons and sin. The malevolent presence which is often felt during an episode is the reason behind this, even though we now know the reason we feel this way is because we’re still in a dream-like state.
What Happens During Sleep Paralysis?
During an episode of sleep paralysis, it’s common to feel scared and anxious. This is due to the fact that your body seemingly isn’t working - you can’t move no matter how hard you try. Only the eyes, muscles and your respiratory system are still fully working.
These feelings can bring on some nasty side effects, such as difficulty breathing, inability to move your eyes and even hallucinations. It’s common to feel and sometimes see a presence in the room, usually one that feels unwelcome and malevolent.
It’s important to remember that, although these things seem real - they aren’t. Remember that it’s during the stages of REM sleep that you dream, which explains the hallucinations and feelings of malevolence.
How Can You Help Improve Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis?
While there’s no specific cure for sleep paralysis - it isn’t usually a common occurrence, there are some small steps you can take to help combat it.
During an episode, try focusing your energy to your toes or fingers and try wiggle them slightly. This will help bring your body out of REM and wake it up. It can also help to:
- Get a proper night’s sleep, between 6 and 8 hours
- Go to bed and wake up around the same time each day
- Create a comfortable, quiet, cool and dark sleeping environment
- Avoid big meals, smoking, alcohol and caffeine before bed
- Avoid exercise for four hours before bed
The biggest step to fighting sleep paralysis is ensuring you feel calm and relaxed before drifting off to sleep. Find ways to help relieve stress before bedtime, like taking a nice, long bath.
It can also help to make sure you have the right type of mattress for your body, so you’re getting the most comfortable night’s sleep as possible.
Remember that it isn’t something that usually happens more than a few times in your life, and it’s no reflection of your physical or mental health. It can happen to anyone.