Sleep Health Series: What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Ever wake up in the middle of the night, unable to move or speak? Maybe there are sounds: whispers, laughter, footsteps. Maybe you see a shadow in the periphery of your vision. Sleep paralysis: it’s creepy and terrifying as hell, but around 40% of the world population will experience this at least once in their lives. What causes sleep paralysis has been a subject of study for a long while, but researchers are still speculating about the science behind it.

Other symptoms of sleep paralysis:

Difficulty breathing, as if there’s a tension in your chest.

Being able to move your eyes — though you may not be able to open them completely.

Feeling another presence in the room — akin to a hallucination.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis will occur during REM sleep, the stage of sleep where you’re almost conscious and your brain can conjure up dreams. It’s also when you eyes will move around (hence REM = rapid eye movement). At this stage of sleep, a combination of neurotransmitters in the body will temporarily reduce the activity of your muscles. So in a sense, paralysis is actually a normal part of restful sleep. And when you wake up, normal muscle functioning resumes.

The waking nightmare arises when it doesn’t resume. And so you’re stuck in between the dream state and waking state: aware of your surroundings but still able to dream. The exact causes behind sleep paralysis have not been pinpointed, but certain factors have been associated with it: family history, sleep deprivation or insomnia, narcolepsy, and having an unpredictable sleeping pattern.

The mechanisms behind all this still aren’t completely certain. However, it’s thought that the stress and fear experienced when waking up paralysed perhaps causes the dreams during sleep paralysis to tend towards disturbing rather than pleasant and lovely. Following this logic, if one is able to somehow keep calm during an episode of sleep paralysis, you could also potentially control your dreams, such like techniques used for lucid dreaming.

What Should You Do?

Sleep paralysis is often a one-time occurence, but if you keep experiencing sleep paralysis, it’s best to get it checked out! Make not of other sleep issues you might have, too. These might include feeling anxious before going to sleep, having trouble keeping awake during the day, and so on.

What causes sleep paralysis is still a blur — but that doesn’t mean you don’t have control over your sleep quality!

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