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SLEEP PARALYSIS ENIGMA: The Waking Nightmare

Most people at some point in their lives have experienced a bizarre event while sleeping that is preceded by terror, fear and even spooky sights.

The narrative is always the same; usually, there is the inability to move or speak while fully awake, a feeling of pressure on the chest that makes it difficult to breathe.

Panic and fear associated with the sudden realization of being immobile, a feeling of being choked or strangled by an unseen force, the sensation of disconnecting from the body through spinning, falling or flying, and seeing or hearing things that are paranormal.

All of these have been linked to various cultural and religious beliefs, that include the effect of demons and aliens among other paranormal explanations.

Years ago, the sleep paralysis experience was usually synonymous with being visited by an evil presence and those who had these experiences were isolated for some form of cleansing ritual. But science has rendered these notions null.

There is a scientific and medical explanation for this absurd and bizarre happening that has nothing to do with demons, spirits or aliens. Science refers to this sleeping abnormality as SLEEP PARALYSIS.

Sleep paralysis primarily surfaces during adolescent years and can transit into the ’20s and ’30s. It has no known serious health complications and can be prevented or managed.

 

It is usually triggered by other sleeping disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is characterized by the inability to remain awake for a long period of time. This results in a person being very sleepy. The person may sleep at odd times too.

Narcolepsy occurs due to the insufficient production of hypocretin, the chemical in the brain that is responsible for keeping us awake. But people who are not suffering from narcolepsy can experience sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis that is not influenced by narcolepsy is known as isolated sleep paralysis, and if it occurs one too many times, it is referred to as recurrent isolated sleep paralysis.

Other factors that can bring about sleep paralysis include

  • Irregular sleeping schedules
  • Heredity (a genetic history of sleep paralysis)
  • Lying on the back when sleeping
  • Stress and some mental disorders like bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders
  • Drug or substance abuse
  • Medications that aggravate sleep disturbances

 

WHAT IS SLEEP PARALYSIS

According to scientific explanations, sleep paralysis is the inability to move your muscles Voluntarily due to alterations in parts of sleep, known as the REM (rapid eye movement), and the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) cycle.

Symptoms often include, immobilization of the limbs and vocal cords that makes you paralyzed and unable to speak, tightness or extreme pressure in the chest that makes breathing difficult, visual and auditory hallucinations that makes one see or hear bizarre things, and an overall feeling of horror, intense fear, plus the sensation that death is just a few inches away.

It may also include a dissociation from the physical body where sensations of floating, spinning, flying or falling are experienced.

 

WHAT HAPPENS DURING SLEEP PARALYSIS

When we go to sleep, our body passes through two parts of sleep known as the REM (rapid eye movement) and the NREM (Non-rapid eye movement). A cycle of both REM and NREM phase spans for about a period of 90 minutes.

The NREM stage occurs first and dominates about 75% of the sleeping time before switching places with the REM stage. During the NREM stage, the body assumes a complete state of relaxation including the eyes, while it repairs body tissues and strengthens the immune system.

The REM stage, on the other hand, is the point where dreams tend to appear. The body also assumes a state of relaxation like in the NREM phase, but there is a quick movement of the eyes.

It also stimulates a neurotransmitter called glycine whose primary function is to cause temporary paralysis of the voluntary muscles like the legs and arms. The brain is also active during this phase. Breathing and heartbeat become quickened and there is a dip in body temperature and blood pressure.

Sleep paralysis typically occurs when one gains consciousness during REM sleep before the switch to the NREM phase occurs, or even during the switch. In this case, one would experience the inability to move their legs, arms, turn their heads or speak due to the effect of glycine that is still active because of the REM phase. All of these can occur for a few seconds or minutes.

As for the feeling of pressure or tightness in the chest, it may be as a result of the inconsistent breathing rhythms brought about by the REM phase. Here, breathing has become shallow and trying to breathe deeply will prove difficult.

Sleep paralysis usually surfaces when you are about falling asleep or when waking up. When it occurs at the point of going into sleep, it is referred to as the hypnagogic or predormital form of sleep paralysis.

If it occurs at the point of waking up, it is referred to as the hypnopompic /post dormital form of sleep paralysis. The post dormital phase is the point when hallucinations are experienced. This is due to the sudden transition from dreamland to consciousness, especially when the dream is a frightening nightmare. Experts believe that the grotesque visions may simply be nightmare residues.

 

 

HOW CAN I TREAT SLEEP PARALYSIS

There isn’t a well-defined treatment for sleep paralysis as it often resolves on its own. However, if it begins to disrupt your sleep constantly and even your daily activities, then you might need to see a doctor or a sleep physician.

Treatment mostly revolves around the cause of the condition, and the physician or doctor will need to look into your sleeping activities and family history. In most cases, a sleep diary where you give a detailed description of your sleeping pattern is recommended. The physician can also introduce you to sleeping studies.

If disturbances occur during the night, a night sleep study called polysomnogram that keeps track of your heart rate, brain waves, breathing and the rate of activity in your muscles will be prescribed.

The level of activity in your muscles will directly pinpoint if you have undergone sleep paralysis or not, as very low muscle activity is associated with the condition. If disturbances occur during the day, a daytime study referred to as the multiple sleep latency test will be prescribed.

This keeps track of how quickly you fall asleep during the day and the type of sleep you fall into. It is crucial to determining if your sleeping paralysis is related to narcolepsy.

In the case of narcolepsy induced sleep paralysis, the doctor may prescribe antidepressants drugs that can abate symptoms of abnormal REM sleep that is responsible for sleep paralysis. For people with mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder that suffer from sleep paralysis, psychotherapy and medication is usually the form of treatment offered.

The physician or doctor will also look into symptoms related to mental health that can trigger sleep paralysis such as stress, depression and anxiety so as to eliminate or help you manage the conditions.

 

HOW CAN I PREVENT  SLEEP PARALYSIS

  • Making certain lifestyle changes especially where sleep is concerned Is crucial to preventing sleep paralysis from occurring. Here are a few tips you can employ to prevent sleep paralysis :
  • Keep a consistent and healthy sleeping pattern. Sleep and wake up at the same designated times
  • Ensure to always sleep in a clean, cool, and dark room.
  • Sleep in comfortable night wears and clean sheets
  • Avoid sleeping with the lights on or dim the lights.
  • Ensure that there is a good amount of sunlight or daylight in your room when you awake.
  • Avoid eating late night snacks or eating heavy  meals before bed.
  • Do not drink alcohol before bedtime.
  • Limit and completely avoid the use of narcotics and harmful drug substances.
  • Seek out treatment for mental health-related conditions such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
  • Avoid taking stimulants like caffeine-containing drinks before bedtime.
  • Eat the right kinds of food that contributes to good sleep such as magnesium and basil containing food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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