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What Sleep Paralysis Is All About and What Causes It

You wake up in the middle of the night. You try to move but your body does not respond. You think it’s a dream, but you’re obviously aware. You try to call for help but you can’t make a sound. So you lie there in your bed, a stranger in your own body.

Congratulations, you’ve met sleep paralysis. Despite being a phenomenon most people have never heard of, up to 7.6% of people suffer this condition at least once in their lives, even if we may not be able to remember it later.

Bright Side addressed some data about this mysterious disorder and wants to share it with you.

What sleep paralysis is

Sleep paralysis is a state in which a person is conscious but unable to move or speak. It usually occurs during one of 2 transitions: when you are falling asleep or waking up. A person experiences the sensation of paralysis and a feeling of heaviness, like someone or something very heavy is sitting on them. It’s commonly accompanied by hallucinations, which makes the situation much more terrifying.

You lose control over your body.

No matter how hard you try, if you experience sleep paralysis, there is nothing you can do to wake up your body. Some people are able to move their fingers or toes, causing them to finally wake up. People often describe it as an “out-of-body experience.” Sleep paralysis can last from a few seconds up to several minutes.

You experience nightmares and hallucinations.

The main symptoms of sleep paralysis include hallucinations and nightmares. However, these are very different from the dreams you see when you sleep. In fact, these “hallucinations” take place when your mind is alert and you feel awake. This makes the situation twice as unsettling.

While paralyzed, people tend to see shadowy figures and hear spooky noises. Sometimes it aligns with the feeling of being dragged out of bed, flying, or vibrations running through the body. Despair also comes into play and we begin to lose control and panic. It’s no wonder that we might suffer from an additional feeling of anxiety when they are unable to scream or move.

It’s older than you think.

People have seemed to notice sleep paralysis from ancient times. There are many stories and legends from around the world that describe something very similar to this condition. People mostly saw it as some kind of demonic possession — or even alien abduction.

An important example related to sleep paralysis is the Renaissance painting by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. In it, a demon is shown sitting on the chest of a woman affected by sleep paralysis, symbolizing the strong pressure.

Why it happens

When we sleep, our body enters and exits REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Our brain sends a command to our muscles to relax, and we enter a state of atonia. This state is necessary to restrict our physical movements so we won’t act out our dreams. Well, sleep paralysis happens when our body has a problem making that transition. We’re awake, but our muscles fail to exit atonia.

There are a few possible explanations regarding hallucinations. One of them is that the part of our brain responsible for fear and emotions is highly active in REM. It is working, while nothing around us suggests danger. So our brain makes up for it and comes up with creepy shadows and sounds.

Factors that can lead to sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is a natural occurrence in its entirety. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, or health condition. But scientists identified some circumstances that are associated with an increased risk of sleep paralysis. Among them are:

  • Poor sleep. This includes infrequent sleep patterns and also various sleep disorders, like insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep deprivation. It’s also noted that sleep paralysis is common in shift workers.
  • Sleeping in a supine position. Surprisingly, sleeping on your back has been found to be a prominent factor in sleep paralysis. It makes the sleeper more vulnerable due to increased pressure on the lungs and airways.
  • Genetics. Yep, it runs in the family. Sleep paralysis is inheritable.
  • Mental issues. The connection between sleep paralysis and mental health is yet to be explored, but statistics show that people with trauma, PTSD, and various anxieties tend to have sleep paralysis.

How to deal with it

There is no denying that sleep paralysis is an unpleasant and disturbing experience, but it doesn’t carry any real danger since it doesn’t cause any harm to the physical body. And, as unpleasant as it may sound, there is no treatment for now. Generally, doctors recommend adopting healthier sleeping habits. For example:

  • Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
  • No caffeine or substances before bed.
  • Avoid sleeping on your back or stomach.
  • Keep electronics out of the bedroom.

But the most important thing is to stay calm and let your episode end on its own. Being calm and not panicking are the key!

What is your way of dealing with poor sleep? If you have ever experienced a sleep disorder, share your story with us!

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