Demystifying sleep paralysis

You wake up in the middle of the night and discover that you cannot move. You feel an evil presence in the room, lying in wait. You try to run, but your feet feel like lead. You try to scream but no sound comes out. The monster creeps closer and starts choking you, suffocating you...This might sound like the script of a low-budget horror movie, but it is reality for many people who experience sleep paralysis.

A terrifying and mysterious sleep disorder, many people think of sleep paralysis as a visitation by malevolent supernatural beings. In fact, many stories of ghosts and things that go bump in the night might be explained by sleep paralysis. Although many still think that sleep paralysis is a brush with the paranormal, scientific research says that it’s nothing more than a neurological disorder.

Why you can’t move

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Sleep paralysis can happen during either of two time: just when you’re about to fall asleep, or when you’re about to wake up. It usually happens when REM (rapid eye movements) cycle of sleep is disrupted, so named after the rapid eye movements that occur during this stage of a normal sleep cycle. During this period, you pass between stages of wakefulness and sleep. If you happen to wake up enough to be aware, you might find yourself temporarily unable to move or speak.

During your sleep, the brain gives a command to your voluntary movement muscles to go into a state of paralysis- which prevents you from acting out your dreams (such as throwing punches or sleep walking). This paralysis is known as REM atonia and it’s a normal function which protects your body from injury during sleep.

In sleep paralysis, you are awake before your brain has sent signals to wake up your muscles. The paralysis can be accompanied with a sensation of pressure on your chest, which is why you feel like you’re choking or suffocating. Some people will also experience hallucinations which might include seeing dark figures, hearing strange sounds, and even smells, along with sensations of flying or falling. All these, combined, can be quite terrifying.

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Whom it affects

If you’ve experience sleep paralysis, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone - the condition is fairly common and can occur at any point in life. According to a 2011 review, about 7.6 per cent of the world’s population experiences at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lifetime. Some people are fortunate to have only one or two episode of sleep paralysis, while others may have more frequent and regular sleep paralysis experiences.

Incidence of sleep paralysis is higher in students - maybe because it is more common in teenagers and young adults. Psychiatric patients - especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress or panic disorders are also disproportionally affected by this sleep disorder. Rates of sleep paralysis are also high in people who have narcolepsy - a condition characterised by excessive sleepiness.

It’s in the genes

A 2015 research concluded that there might be a genetic predisposition to sleep paralysis. Scientists in the UK examined the role of heredity in sleep paralysis by studying a group of 862 twins and siblings. The participants were all young adults between ages 22 and 32. After comparing data on sleep and incidence of sleep paralysis, they found that genetics was a factor in 53 per cent of the cases of sleep paralysis among their subjects. On further research, the scientists found that people with a certain gene variant were more likely to suffer from sleep paralysis.

Prevention and treatment

Bad news for those who suffer from sleep paralysis -- there is no treatment or cure for the disorder. However, if your sleep paralysis is particularly troublesome, the doctor might prescribe a short course of antidepressants. The medication works by altering the amount and depth of REM sleep.

 The good news is that you can take some steps towards preventing sleep paralysis. Here are some tips:

·         The best way to prevent sleep paralysis is to stick to a regular sleep schedule and make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night.

·         Avoid stimulants (such as alcohol, coffee, smoking, or watching TV) before bed. Instead have a calming and relaxing routine that helps prepare your mind and body for sleep.

·         Avoid eating and snacking late at night.

·         Avoid lying on your back, which has been linked to more likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis.

·         If you are experiencing mood issues which could lead to sleep paralysis, talk to your doctor for treatment.

·         Ensure you sleep in a restful environment which is dark, quiet, and relatively warm.

·         Exercise regularly and eat a healthy balanced diet.

·         Don’t panic when you experience sleep paralysis. However frightening, sleep paralysis is very temporary (lasting only several seconds or minutes), and it has no lasting effects on your physical or mental health.

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