The formal definition of sleep paralysis is a person’s inability to move during periods of awakening or falling asleep. It’s difficult to grasp what sleep paralysis exactly is from just its formal definition alone. What is it really like to experience sleep paralysis? You’ve probably never heard of anyone going through a positive sleep paralysis experience. Most of those who experience it express intense feelings of fear and panic but can’t fully describe what exactly they were going through. For most people who have experienced sleep paralysis, they often describe it as nothing short of a terrifying experience.
Perhaps the best description of sleep paralysis you could ever get is this: it is the result of your mind awakening, but your body remains asleep. This explains why you are completely immobile during a sleep paralysis episode. At the same time, you are completely aware of your surroundings but cannot move. Most stories of sleep paralysis are combined with hallucinations that may involve seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not there, typically something described as sinister. This is exactly what generates the fear and panic response for most people when they experience it.
Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis
You know you’re experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis if you find yourself in a half-awake, half-asleep state but unable to move or get up. Apart from not being able to move, you might also feel a slight pressure on your chest that gets heavier and heavier but finally stops completely. You might also feel as if you’re suffocating or having difficulty breathing, even though you’re actually not. Aside from your senses being falsely stimulated during sleep paralysis, you’ll also notice that you remember everything that you thought you felt or saw—even if they didn’t really happen. You might even feel pain from the physical struggle you thought you were experiencing during sleep paralysis—even though nothing really happened.
Causes and Diagnosis
The causes of sleep paralysis are still arguable. Many scientists believe that sleep paralysis can be triggered by a number of things including lack of sleep, psychological stress, abnormal sleeping patterns, and narcolepsy, among others. Some claim that sleep paralysis is caused by an overlap in the waking stages and REM stages of sleep, which is very much like saying you’re half-awake, half-asleep as mentioned before. Studies are still very much broad as to the causes of sleep paralysis because it happens to a huge percentage of the population. Up to 50% of the population, both male and female equally, will have at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lives.
The diagnosis of sleep paralysis is also largely self-reported. Your diagnosis will be based on what you tell your primary caregiver, after ruling out other sleep disorders. You’re also likely to be tested for narcolepsy.
Prevention and Treatment
To prevent sleep paralysis, you should adopt healthier sleeping habits. Since the likelihood of sleep paralysis happens when there’s sleep deprivation, insomnia, stress, and fatigue, sleeping better will decrease the risk of it happening. In addition, it’s been suggested that sleeping in the supine position might increase the chance of sleep paralysis; therefore, sleeping on your side might be a better option if you experience sleep paralysis on a regular basis.
There have been no large group studies that have focused on the development of sleep paralysis treatments. There are a couple of therapy options you can choose: cognitive-behavior therapy or meditation-relaxation therapy. While clinical trials are lacking in both, they’re the best options you may have to combat regular sleep paralysis attacks. In cognitive-behavior therapy, you’ll have to monitor your sleep patterns and adjust your maladaptive thoughts. You’ll also learn how to disrupt episodes as they occur.
Meditation-relaxation therapy offers a four-step process to combat sleep paralysis as it happens. The first step is to reappraise the attack by closing your eyes to re-center yourself and avoid panic. Next, you need to regulate your emotions by distancing yourself from the situation. Third, you have to focus your thoughts on something positive. Last, you can regain control of your body by utilizing techniques to relax your muscles. Meditation-relaxation therapy has been reported to work on some people. However, there are also no clinical trials supporting the effectiveness of this treatment.