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SLEEP PARALYSIS: The Palpable Nightmare

Oheneba Kwakye Omane
Oheneba Kwakye Omane

Do you sometimes feel frozen, locked up or unable to move, breathe or even talk anytime during your sleep cycle? Do shadowy evil creatures terrify you during that time? If yes, what you experience is called sleep paralysis. You might have wondered what causes this weird and often scary experience? How do you mitigate this awful experience or even nip it in the bud completely? This write-up might answer most of your questions.

Some basic notes on sleep and sleep disorders

Science has established the fact that as human beings we need sleep and without enough of it, we cannot function properly. Everybody, whether they admit it or not knows how important sleep is. It is astonishing how bleak and gloomy the world can seem when viewed through the drooping eyes from sleep-deprived exhaustion. On the other hand, a sense of rebirth and renewal after a long night of deep sleep is totally invigorating. With the blessing of balanced, productive work, we can enjoy optimal physical, spiritual and mental well-being. There are however a few common sleep issues or problems which impede optimum sleep. A few of such are snoring, insomnia (habitual sleeplessness), sleep apnoea (interrupted breathing during sleep), sleep deprivation, sleep paralysis, and restless legs syndrome.

What is sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may even experience a sense of choking or feel pressure on their chest. During an occurrence of sleep paralysis, you may experience fear and panic attacks due to hallucinations (hearing, feeling, or seeing things that are not there). A typical episode generally last less than a couple of minutes. But some people report having episodes lasting for hours. It may occur as a single episode or be repeated. Sleep paralysis may accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by sudden and uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep. In other words, this is a condition defined by an extreme tendency to fall asleep whenever one is in a relaxing surrounding. Common consequences of sleep paralysis include headaches, muscle pains or weakness or paranoia. A random fact on sleep paralysis: Twin studies have shown that if one twin of a monozygotic pair (identical twins) experiences sleep paralysis that other twin is very likely to experience it as well.

What causes Sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis usually occurs at one of two times. If it occurs while you are falling asleep, it's called predormital or hypnagogic sleep paralysis. If it happens as you are waking up, it's called postdormital or hypnopompic sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is commonly experienced by lucid dreamers. A lucid dream is simply when the dreamer is very much aware that they are dreaming and very often has some amount of control over the dream. Sleep paralysis can be triggered by sleep deprivation, psychological stress, or abnormal sleep cycles. The underlying mechanism is believed to involve a dysfunction in REM sleep. Let us dive into a little technical explanation here. During sleep, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One cycle of REM and NREM sleep lasts about 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and takes up to 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move quickly and dreams occur, but the rest of your body remains very relaxed. Your muscles are "turned off" during REM sleep. If you become aware before the REM cycle has finished, you may notice that you cannot move or speak. Several types of hallucinations have been linked to sleep paralysis: the belief that there is an intruder in the room, even the presence of an incubus, and the sensation of floating. A major theory is that the neural functions that regulate sleep are out of balance in such a way that causes different sleep states to overlap.

The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being unable to move or speak during awakening. Some report imagined sounds such as humming, hissing, static, zapping and buzzing noises. One can also experience other sounds such as voices, whispers and roars.

These symptoms are usually accompanied by intense emotions such as fear and panic. People also have sensations of being dragged out of bed or of flying, numbness, and feelings of electric tingles or vibrations running through their body. Sleep paralysis may include hypnagogic hallucinations, such as a supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one's chest and difficulty breathing. Another example of a hallucination involves a menacing shadowy figure entering one's room or lurking outside one's window, while the subject is paralyzed.

How to prevent Sleep Paralysis

After experiencing a few scattered episodes some years ago, I did some research and realized this occurrence is quite normal or should I say fairly common and can be prevented or at least dealt with to the barest minimum. It could be alarming if your occurrence keeps you up all night and leaves you exhausted during the day. It is believed that between 8% and 50% of people experience sleep paralysis at some point in their life. Several circumstances have been identified that are associated with an increased risk of sleep paralysis. These include insomnia, sleep deprivation, an erratic sleep schedule, stress, and physical fatigue. I personally did realize that sleeping on the back (supine position) is an instigator of sleep paralysis.

Sleeping in the supine position is believed to make the sleeper more vulnerable to episodes of sleep paralysis because in this sleeping position it is possible for the soft palate to collapse and obstruct the airway, hence causing the breathing difficulties. There may also be a greater rate of microarousals while sleeping in the supine position because there is a greater amount of pressure being exerted on the lungs by gravity.

In conclusion, there is no need to be afraid of nighttime terrors or demons during an episode of sleep paralysis. If you have infrequent sleep paralysis, you can take steps at home to control this disorder. Start by making sure you get enough sleep. Try to alleviate stress in your life - especially just before bedtime and try new sleeping positions if you sleep on your back. And be sure to see your doctor if sleep paralysis routinely prevents you from getting a good night's sleep.

References

Salin-Pascual RJ. (2016) Self-perception in the case of sleep paralysis: A state of consciousness within the dream MOR. Rev Mex Neuroci,17(6):72-84.

WebMD Medical Reference (2020) Retrieved  from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/default.html

Oheneba Kwakye Omane

Medical Enthusiast and Futurist