Ask An Adult: What Is Sleep Paralysis And Why Do I Get It?
The Debrief: Sleep paralysis can be terrifying, and it's estimated that 20-40 per cent of us will encounter it in our lifetime. But what is sleep paralysis and how do you prevent it?
Artwork by Beth Hoeckel
Have you ever woken up and, just for a few seconds, found yourself unable to move, or felt like you couldn’t breathe? Sleep paralysis is a pretty weird phenomenon and people who experience it are, understandably, often quite freaked out by it.
It’s also more common than you might expect – the experts we spoke to estimate that 20-40 per cent of people have at least one encounter with sleep paralysis over their lifetime. So what exactly is it, and what can you do about it?
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a normal part of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – the kind of sleep where you dream most vividly – and we all have four or five periods of REM sleep every night, explains Dr Paul Reading, a consultant neurologist and president of the British Sleep Society.
During this kind of sleep, he tells us, ‘Your brain’s going like the clackers having these bizarre dreams, your eyes are moving, but also importantly your body is completely paralysed. The brain sends signals to your muscles to say “don’t move”, so in REM sleep you’re completely floppy, which means you can’t act out dreams or fall out of bed.’
The scary bit comes on those rare occasions when you wake up but your brain effectively forgets to switch your muscles back on – or, as Dr Reading puts it: ‘the paralysis part of REM sleep leaks into wakefulness.’
There’s not thought to be any link with depression, anxiety or stress and, although it can be more common in people who’ve been burning the candle at both ends, it’s generally considered to just be one of those things that some people will experience from time to time.
For some people though it’s a lot more regular, and Dr Reading says, ‘We don’t really know why it happens in people who get it frequently, it’s just one of those things. Their brains are perfectly normal, it must be some subtle wiring problem, but we can’t find it.’
What does sleep paralysis feel like?
During sleep paralysis, the only parts of your body that can move are your eyes and your diaphragm, so you basically wake up and feel like your whole body is paralysed and you can’t breathe.
In reality, the diaphragm keeps you breathing while you’re asleep, so you can still breathe perfectly fine during sleep paralysis. However, the chest muscles, which we use to breathe when we’re awake, won’t move under sleep paralysis so you won’t be able to physically take a breath in or out.
‘It usually lasts only seconds, sometimes a couple of minutes, and extremely rarely it can last more than a couple of minutes,’ says Professor Williams, a consultant at the London Sleep Centre and Professor of Sleep Medicine at King's College London.
‘The person who’s suffering sleep paralysis often feels a heavy pressure on the chest because the chest is not moving. It’s not actually a pressure at all, but that’s where the sensation of suffocation comes from,’ he says.
Is sleep paralysis dangerous?
It may feel like someone’s sitting on your chest, weighing you down, and in more severe cases some people even experience dreamlike hallucinations, where they can see ‘demons in the room’, or someone sitting on their chest.
‘It’s just scary,’ says Dr Reading, ‘but it’s not dangerous at all.’
Is sleep paralysis common?
Generally speaking, sleep paralysis strikes fairly randomly, although it can run in families and there are certain types of people who seem to be particularly affected.
There’s good news and bad news on that front: where there’s a genetic link, Dr Reading says it appears to affect men more than women; but young people and anyone who’s sleep deprived are also more commonly affected.
‘You tend to see it more in younger people, and people doing night shifts, perhaps because they’re more sleep deprived,’ Dr Reading says. ‘But if you ask a room of 100 people, it’s amazing how many people go “I’ve had that once or twice.” People tend to remember it really clearly because it’s a scary and weird thing to happen.’
It’s also especially common in people with narcolepsy – a sleep disorder that affects your brain’s ability to regulate your sleep-wake cycle, leading to disturbed sleep overnight, sleepiness during the day, and sleep paralysis.
In people with narcolepsy, the paralysis often comes along with hallucinations, dreamlike imagery, and usually occurs as you’re falling asleep, rather than when you wake up.
More disturbingly still, people with narcolepsy can be affected by a condition called catoplexy, which Professor Williams explains is ‘sleep paralysis that comes on when you’re awake, when you’re laughing or angry, or going through an emotional experience.’
We guess that makes occasionally waking up unable to move seem quite normal!
Can sleep paralysis be cured?
If it only happens occasionally, there’s really no need to worry. ‘Things are never perfect in our bodies, so a little lag with sleep paralysis might be just one of those things,’ says Professor Williams.
On the other hand, Dr Reading says, if it’s particularly severe or frequent, it can usually be easily treated using a low dose of anti-depressant drugs over a short course of a few months.
‘The drugs would be taken before bed obviously, and will just subtly alter your brain chemicals to inhibit REM sleep paralysis. This tends to work quite well – not as an anti-depressant but specifically to alter your sleep,’ he explains.
Beyond medication, he adds, the only real ‘lifestyle’ treatment is to get more sleep if it’s sleep deprivation that’s causing the paralysis.
So what’s the best trick for getting out of sleep paralysis if it does strike? Simply get someone else to touch you and you’ll snap straight out of it. Of course, as Professor Williams points out, it can be difficult to get anyone’s attention while you’re unable to move or speak – so, unless you can articulate ‘touch me’ to your partner by grunting, you might just have to stay calm and wait it out!
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Artwork by Beth Hoeckel
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