Sleep Paralysis has happened to most of us -- and it’s kinda scary. While some may say the sleep disorder is complicated, medical experts advise that it is not serious.
Interestingly, sleep paralysis has been documented since the 7th century and often attributed to the paranormal or dismissed as just a bad dream, even in great works of literature. It is believed that several authors likely had personal experiences with sleep paralysis. For instance, we can read vivid depictions of sleep paralysis in the writings of Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
The simple explanation of sleep paralysis is when a person is unable to move as they are falling asleep or are awake. People who suffer from it report that they are completely aware of their surroundings and have the desire to move but are unable. Some have described it as a frightening experience that is a mix of a nightmare or evil presence in the room, a crushing pressure on their chest, intense fear and – although they are conscious – they feel paralyzed.
While the cause of sleep paralysis is not totally understood, researchers describe it as a dysfunction between the awake state and the paralysis that normally occurs during REM sleep. Some experts say it has the same characteristics as narcolepsy, with some distinguishing the two only by whether it occurs during sleep onset, while you fall asleep, or when you are waking up.
Another disorder tied to sleep paralysis is obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where airflow stops and starts intermittently during sleep causing the brain to be awake for short periods of time but not the body.
Sleep paralysis still remains something of a scientific curiosity, but researchers from the Harvard Medical School have made significant inroads into explaining the disruptive sleeping pattern, which they estimate can affect up to 30 percent of the population.
Sleep paralysis may run in families, and it is often first noticed in a person’s teen years. However, men and women of all ages have been diagnosed with sleep paralysis. Other factors that may be linked to sleep paralysis include:
- Lack of sleep
- Sleep schedule that changes
- Mental conditions such as stress, anxiety or bipolar disorder
- Sleeping on the back
- Other sleep problems such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea or nighttime leg cramps
- Use of certain medications (such as those for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
- Substance abuse
While there is no cure for sleep paralysis, experts advise there are some basic steps to improve sleeping habits and avoid sleep paralysis, including:
- Get adequate sleep at night – between 6 to 8 hours for an adult
- Keep a consistent bed time -- even on the weekends
- If you sleep on your back, try a new sleeping position
- Reduce your alcohol intake
- Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation
If after trying these tips you find you are still experiencing sleep paralysis, you may want to talk to your physician about prescribing medication to help regulate the sleep cycle.