Sleep Care

Sleep Paralysis: The Waking Nightmare

A sleeper wakes suddenly, and finds that they are unable to move. There seems to be a strangling pressure on their neck or chest. Somewhere in the room, they feel there is a presence watching them. Is this just a terrible nightmare? No. This is a very real and often very frightening experience that between 20-40% of the population will experience at least once in their lifetime. It’s called Sleep Paralysis, and it has been haunting humans throughout the centuries. Various cultures have developed names and explanations for these frightening episodes, such as punishment from a higher power, possession by demons, and being attacked by any number of frightening beings.

The clinical symptoms for this include a feeling of terror or “vividness”, paralysis, trouble breathing, a sense of impending doom, hallucinations of any or all of the senses, feeling vibrations, or the sensation of floating or falling. This disorder is often linked with another sleeping disorder, Narcolepsy, which is characterized by the inability to control one’s wake/sleep cycle along with the onset of intermittent muscle weakness. There are several factors that increase the likelihood of one of these events happening. Sleeping on your back, stress, sudden environmental changes, jet lag, substance abuse, and lucid dreams have been connected. Those who are prone to anxiety disorders or panic attacks have shown an increase in the occurrence of sleep paralysis. This disorder has also shown to be hereditary.

But what is really happening to the sleeper? When we dream, the brain disconnects the body’s ability to move by causing a state of total muscle paralysis known as atonia. This happens so that we aren’t able to physically act out our dreams, which would not only be disruptive to restful sleep but also dangerous to the dreamer and those nearby. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brains awakens prematurely before atonia has had a chance to deactivate, leaving you awake and aware, yet unable to move. Additionally, pulse and breathing rates remain at the level established in REM. This causes the feeling of smothering, since the person is unable to draw any deeper breaths.

To lessen the chances of experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis, a few steps can be taken. Try to sleep on a side or on the stomach. Maintain a steady bedtime and wake time, and insure that you are getting enough sleep every night. Exercise regularly to improve muscle coordination and control. Try to keep stress at a minimal level approaching bedtime. This may be easier said than done, but some helpful exercises can include, reading a book, taking a warm bath or listening to soothing music. If you should awaken find yourself in this situation, unable to move, remember that this is a simple and harmless condition that usually resolves in a matter of seconds. Do not fight the paralysis or try to breathe faster. Relax, and just try and move something small like one finger or toe. This

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will alert your brain that you are awake and let the paralysis ease naturally. If you suffer one or more of these events each week for more than six months, consider seeing a doctor for treatment.

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