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Sleep Paralysis

“I Can’t Move” – Sleep Paralysis Explained

Have you ever heard of the condition known as sleep paralysis? If you’re a fan of the reality television show “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” you may recall that the issue was brought to the forefront on an episode that focused on Kendall Jenner.

In a recent interview, the reality star and model admitted that she is afraid of falling asleep. She explained that she wakes up in the middle of the night and that, while her mind is awake, she is unable to move her body due to the condition. Kendall described the events on the show as follows: “I’m freaking out because I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and I can’t move,” she said.

So, what basically is sleep paralysis?

This is a condition where an individual is asleep or just waking, and is unable to move. It can occur in healthy individuals. It has also been associated with other underlying mental health issues, such as genetic and family issues, and sleep problems. According to statistics, approximately 8% of the general population has SP. SP, although described inaccurately, does not have a set definition or etiology, making it difficult to diagnose. There are various speculations in the literature that include explanations of SP. Cultural and medical descriptions can be considered as two different groups of descriptions. In some cultures, it is referred to as a sleep paralysis demon or sleeps paralysis ghost taking over the body and some also attach spiritual meaning to sleep paralysis. While disparities exist between various cultural or ethnic groups when it comes to identifying and managing SP, various treatment approaches have emerged as a result.

The condition includes the period of time either when you wake up from sleep or when you go to sleep when you’re unable to control your muscles. These episodes are frequently accompanied by a variety of hallucinations, including a sense of an evil presence (referred to as intruder hallucinations), chest pressure (referred to as incubus hallucinations), and illusory sensations of movement (referred to as vestibular-motor (V-M) hallucinations).

Sleep Paralysis in Different Cultures

It is a global phenomenon. In over 100 cultures, different names have been given to this state of being paralyzed and unable to move while asleep. For many people, sleep paralysis is accompanied by folklore from the local culture. Witchcraft, demonic assault, and space alien abduction are all said to be caused by episodes of sleep paralysis. Some even claim that they found or were visited by a holy deity and refer to it as spiritual sleep paralysis. For the most part, episodes are associated with fear and distress, whereas feelings of bliss are occasionally reported.

What Does Sleep Paralysis Feel Like?

A large part of our nervous system is turned off while we sleep so that we don’t act out our dreams. Although we are technically in a state of inactivity while sleeping, we remain unaware of our immobility. As soon as we’re fully awake, we’re able to move again, so it’s like it never happened. It is quite simple; we just wake up and do our daily activities.

When your mind wakes up, but your body remains asleep, this can lead to scary situations like sleep paralysis. You’re lying on your back, and all of a sudden realize you can’t move. This may occur when you are going from one stage of sleep to another. You have opened your eyes. You’re overwhelmed by a feeling of being trapped, crushed, or stuck. To no avail, you might try to talk or shout, but you’ll not make a sound. Your arm or leg desperately tries to move, but you can’t. You might end up wheezing for air in the middle of the night. The demonic association is made because of this exact feeling. Some people with SP have reported that it feels like someone is holding them down in their sleep.

For others, it worsens. A number of people can feel an ill intent from the room as if the perpetrator is trying to attack them. Or some say it feels like someone is touching them while sleeping

What Triggers Sleep Paralysis?

There are many potential risk factors behind SP, but current researchers have found a number of things that may contribute to it, including substance use, genetic influences, physical illness, stress, trauma, and irregular sleeping habits. It appears to be significantly more common in adults who have had childhood sexual abuse or have panic disorder. The vast majority of isolated sleep paralysis episodes are caused by fragmented sleep, excessive sleepiness, stress, sleep deprivation, or a disrupted sleep schedule.

Sleep-paralysis episodes have been associated with hypertension, seizures, narcolepsy, a sleep disorder in which individuals lose the capability to control their sleep cycles and fall asleep at random times.

While depression, stress, and anxiety frequently serve as triggers, we have little control over these factors. Apart from avoiding excessive stress and getting adequate sleep, how can you avoid the onset of scary sleep paralysis?

How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis?

If you have a neurological or psychological disorder that increases your risk of sleep paralysis, like an anxiety disorder or narcolepsy, the most critical thing to do is to seek treatment for that disorder. However, if this is not the case, the following tips will help you improve your sleep and reduce your risk of developing sleep paralysis:

Maintain a steady sleep-wake cycle and get adequate sleep.

The condition is more likely to occur if the sleep schedule is disrupted or if you are sleep-deprived. In case the brain does not receive enough REM sleep on a consistent basis, it’ll be deprived of this critical sleep process. When you next drift off to dreamland, your brain will work overtime to compensate for the deficit by entering REM more quickly and generating more intense brain activity. This increases the likelihood of an incomplete transition between REM and wakefulness, and thus the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis.

Relaxation or meditation is beneficial.

Relaxing the body and mind, according to a recent study, may help reduce and eradicate the problem. This thought process is predicated on the idea that sleep paralysis establishes a cycle at the moment, and that diverting your attention away from frightening visions and bodily sensations will break the cycle and return you to calm sleep.

The practice entails focusing your attention on a few pleasing internal thoughts during the episode of SP, like a pleasant memory, as well as consciously attempting to relax the muscles. This activates the relaxation system and calms the fight-or-flight response.

Limit drugs and alcohol.

Certain medications, including many antidepressants and insomnia medications, can disturb REM sleep, and certain substances. In general, it’s prudent to limit alcohol or other recreational drugs, particularly at night. Additionally, it’s worth discussing the medications with the doctor to determine whether any of them could be backing up your sleep paralysis.

Final Word

As mentioned, sleep paralysis happens because of a psychological or neurological disorder like narcolepsy, stress, anxiety, or insomnia. It can also occur because of substance and alcohol abuse. Our expert physicians can help you manage this problem by recommending some lifestyle changes and practices. Sleep paralysis can be very daunting and adhering to some healthy lifestyle practices can help you treat this condition.

– Disclaimer –
This blog is for informational & educational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute any professional medical advice or consultation. For any health related concerns, please consult with your physician, or call 911.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by Dr. Syra Hanif, M.D. on 08/02/2021

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  • About The Author

    Dr. Syra Hanif M.D.

    Board Certified Primary Care Physician

Dr. Syra Hanif is a board-certified Primary Care Physician (PCP) dedicated to providing compassionate, patient-centered healthcare.

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