Picture this: you’re laying in bed and suddenly you see a dark figure at the end of your bed, and it is just staring at you. You go to scream and run but you realize you can’t. You’re paralyzed. You make every effort to move and scream out, but you’re stuck and absolutely helpless. Sounds terrifying doesn’t it? This is just one of many potential experiences that some individuals have when they experience what is called sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a unique, yet extremely common experience that one in five people will experience in their lifetime. Typically, the first, and hopefully the last, episode of sleep paralysis will occur during the teen years from 14-17 with potential for subsequent episodes to occur later in life as well.
So, what exactly is happening when someone experiences sleep paralysis? Sleep paralysis occurs at one of two times, either when an individual is about to fall asleep or they are just waking up. At either of these times your body has reached a certain level of relaxation, atonia, where the body’s muscles and systems are shut off. This happens as a way for the body to protect itself during REM sleep, so we are not physically active and engaged with our dreams. As the body is in this state, this is where the paralysis kicks in, your body is in a position where all systems are down except for the brain. Your brain is awake and alert, but your body is assuming it is in REM sleep (the deepest level of sleep we can achieve). In this moment, all we are capable of is tapping into our senses and breathing. Due to the deep level of sleep that our body is in, despite our awareness, an individual can experience hallucinations. These hallucinations are commonly visual in which the individual can see a general, or noticeably clear, figure that is in the room with them. This can be accompanied by the feeling that others are in the room and even that they are touching or sitting on you. This experience brings on fear which is a major maintenance factor in sleep paralysis. Although this experience only lasts seconds to minutes, it can feel like hours.
As just noted, stress can be a major contributor to sleep paralysis. Studies have found that in certain cultures, such as Italian and Egyptian cultures, that the way in which the culture explains and understands sleep paralysis can contribute to the frequency at which it is experienced. What I mean by that is, in these cultures the experience is attributed to things such as dark magic and the supernatural. According to the studies conducted, these beliefs instilled more fear and concern surrounding sleep paralysis, and the more fear someone had related to sleep paralysis had a positive correlation to the increased frequency of episodes. This research coincides with other research that explains how stress and underlying mental health conditions can contribute to the experience of sleep paralysis. Those with diagnoses such as generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder have been reported to have higher reports of sleep paralysis. This may be as a result of the sleep disturbances and high levels of stress that those individuals are living under. Two other major contributors to sleep paralysis are those who have a diagnosis of narcolepsy, which is the most common population to report sleep paralysis, and then for those who sleep on their back. What I gathered from this research is that proper sleep hygiene and stress management are critical in attending to and reducing the frequency of sleep paralysis.
This leads us to treating sleep paralysis. It is important to know that this is not a medical condition or anything that is life threatening despite the potential threat that can be imposed in the moment. As previously stated, proper sleep hygiene and stress management are key to reducing vulnerability factors. Furthermore, if an individual is experiencing sleep paralysis on a frequent, or consistent basis it would be wise to talk with a general practitioner or mental health clinician. This way any underlying concerns can be addressed. Through the general practitioner one can be prescribed an antidepressant (not for a diagnosis of depression) to aid in sleep disturbances and stress management. A mental health clinician can help address any mental health conditions that may be impacting the individual’s experience and learn proper sleep hygiene. Otherwise in the case of narcolepsy or more serious sleep conditions it is recommended to see a general practitioner and a sleep specialist for appropriate testing.
-Courtney, Graduate Intern
If you or a loved one are seeking professional help for stress management or any other mental health concerns please contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates at 708-633-8000.
AASM. (2020). Sleep Paralysis – Diagnosis & Treatment. Retrieved from http://sleepeducation.org/sleep-disorders-by-category/parasomnias/sleep-paralysis/diagnosis-treatment
Feigenholtz, S. (n.d.). 94TH GENERAL ASSEMBLY. Retrieved from https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/94/HB/PDF/09400HB5373.pdf
National Sleep Foundation. (2020, June 01). What Causes Sleep Paralysis During REM Sleep? Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/what-you-should-know-about-sleep-paralysis