If somebody has ever described sleep paralysis to you, you probably thought they were making it up. They claim to be awake, but unable to move any part of their body, and even breathing is difficult. Well, it turns out it is a real condition. This article will help explain exactly what is happening to someone suffering from sleep paralysis.
What is sleep paralysis?
It’s estimated that just under 10% of the general population suffers from sleep paralysis. Basically what happens in sleep paralysis is that your mind has woken up, but your body hasn’t yet. How does this happen? While there are different stages of sleep, REM sleep is the deepest sleep, but it is also when the brain is the most active.
In a process called REM atonia, during REM sleep, the physical body essentially becomes paralysed (probably to prevent most people from jerking around or walking in their sleep). When those individuals wake up and literally cannot move, it is likely that REM atonia is still active, keeping the body from moving. It takes a few minutes for the brain to realize that the REM sleep has ended and that atonia can subside.
What does it feel like and why does it happen?
In addition to not being able to move any part of the body, some people also claim to feel a presence on or around them when they wake up in this sleep paralysis. Researchers don’t have an easy explanation for this, but they do have a few unproven suggestions.
Some researchers believe it is simply the brain confusing reality with sleep, and thus hallucinations, or even images of you moving your limbs, can be seen. Other researchers believe that the part of our brain that controls fear, the amygdala, becomes over-active and thus one is left with the feeling of having a presence on them or in the room.
As if this whole scenario doesn’t sound scary enough, there are three different scenarios that can occur when you suffer from sleep paralysis.
- The first is called “incubus,” in which a person feels an intense pressure on the chest area, making it difficult to breathe; this is often the scenario in which people say it feels like someone or something is sitting on their chest.
- Another scenario is referred to as “intruder” because it is characterized by a feeling that somebody else is in the room (may or may not be a vivid hallucination).
- The third option that individuals may experience is an “unusual body experience.” This may feel like the person is out of their body or floating.
What can you do about it?
Everybody can agree that sleep paralysis sounds absolutely terrifying, and it seems that we would all want to avoid it if possible. Fortunately, there are some practices you can take advantage of to reduce your chances of experiencing this, or to reduce the occurrences if you have already suffered through it.
First things first, try not to sleep on your back. Although researchers aren’t sure why exactly, it seems that sleeping on your side significantly reduces your chances of experiencing sleep paralysis. If you do wake up and find yourself in this paralyzing situation, try to focus on moving one body part at a time, starting with a finger or toe. Stay calm and remind yourself that you know exactly what you are experiencing, and that it will be over quickly.
Although sleep paralysis can truly be terrifying, knowing why it happens, and that you’re not alone, should hopefully bring you some comfort.
Image via Flickr/Seniju