It's late at night and, seemingly without cause, you snap awake. Your chest is tight and you have to take a big gasp for air before your breathing slowly regulates. You must have had a nightmare. What time is it? you wonder, rolling over to check your bedside alarm clock.
But you don't roll. You try again, but remain where you are. You realize you can't roll. You can't move at all -- not your head, not your arms or legs. Nothing. You try wiggling your toes to no avail.
Your heart rate starts to quicken. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice a shadow falling over you. There's someone in your doorway, watching you. You're certain of it, but you can't move to look. You can't see them, but you know they're there. Your heart is now racing.
This isn't a nightmare. This is sleep paralysis -- being awake in a nightmare.
Sleep paralysis is when you are unable to move your body while falling asleep or when waking up. Though you are still able to breathe normally, you are unable to move your limbs, turn your head, or even speak. During this time, you are fully aware of what is happening. Fortunately, sleep paralysis is not a serious risk to your overall health.
Sleep paralysis occurs as your body is entering or leaving REM sleep, which is the stage of the sleep cycle when your brain is most active and dreaming occurs. During this stage of sleep, your muscles are essentially turned off and your body is made temporarily immobile so you do not get up and act out the dreams your brain is playing out. This process is called REM atonia. Sleep paralysis happens because something goes wrong during atonia. The process does not occur properly, causing someone to wake up during the REM phase while their body is still left immobile.
It isn't definitely known what causes sleep paralysis, but it has been linked to sleep deprivation, some prescription medications and other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy. There is also a theory that the disorder could be genetic.
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A sleep paralysis episode can last mere seconds or withstand minutes. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, an episode usually ends on its own or when someone touches you or speaks to you.
For many people who experience sleep paralysis, an episode can make them experience extreme anxiety. Not being able to move and control your body is a frightening and disturbing moment, and there is no known way to pull yourself out of sleep paralysis -- you just have to wait it out.
Additionally, some people with sleep paralysis might also experience hallucinations during an episode. These hallucinations vary in degree, but one might see, hear or even feel something that isn't truly there. Those with sleep paralysis commonly report feeling like someone or something sinister is in the room with them. Sometimes, those experiencing sleep paralysis wake up with pressure on their chest, making them gasp for air.
This is, unfortunately, a big question mark. Studies on sleep paralysis have concluded anywhere from 5 percent to 65 percent of the general population has the sleep disorder.
However, a 2011 paper Lifetime Prevalence of Sleep Paralysis combined more than 30 studies on the sleep disorder and narrowed the window -- concluding that about 8 percent of average people experience sleep paralysis. This number rises to 28 percent of those in high-risk groups, such as those with disrupted sleep schedules, and 35 percent in psychiatric patients.
Sleep paralysis can affect men and women, both old and young. Usually teenagers are the earliest age group to experience a sleep paralysis episode, with the average age being 14 to 17. Though the teenage years are when it first materializes, sleep paralysis is the most common for those in their 20s and 30s. You can experience an episode only once in your life, or have them frequently.
Although scientists don't know much about what causes it, there is evidence that sleep paralysis has been impacting people all through history. One of the most popular historic examples of sleep paralysis is Henry Fuseli's 1781 Gothic painting, "The Nightmare," which depicts a sleeping woman surrounded by nightmare-like entities (pictured above).
Not at all. This is a common misconception about sleep paralysis, but it's more accurate to say that having a paralysis episode is like living in a nightmare. You're awake and aware of your surroundings, yet unable to move and, in those more serious cases, experiencing hallucinations. For those seconds, it's like being in a nightmare you can't wake up from, which is much more terrifying.
If you regularly experience sleep paralysis, it is vital that you see a doctor. Sleep paralysis can be a symptom of another sleep disorder called narcolepsy, which causes overwhelming daytime drowsiness and a tendency to fall asleep. If your doctor suspects narcolepsy, you might undergo a sleep study.
Though people with narcolepsy often experience sleep paralysis, you can also have "isolated" sleep paralysis if you have no other narcoleptic symptoms. Treatment depends on the individual, so talk to a doctor about your symptoms and find the best road to recovery for you. In serious cases, antidepressant medication can be prescribed to help stop episodes of sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis might also be a symptom of overall sleep deprivation. If this is the case, setting a regular sleep schedule of six to eight hours a night can help reduce or even eliminate the number of episodes you experience.
If you're in one of the high-risk groups who are sleep deprived or have trouble falling asleep, see some tips for how to fall asleep here.
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