A demon haunting dreams; stories and even memes–sleep paralysis may be one of the most talked about and misunderstood sleep problems. But if you or someone you know is suffering from sleep paralysis, chances are you just want it to stop disrupting your sleep for good.
You may be surprised just how common sleep paralysis is. While not as prevalent as sleep apnea, sleep paralysis occurs in as many as two out of five Americans, according to Harvard Health. While I typically see it start in teens, the age bracket that reports the most instances of sleep paralysis is ages 20 to 40, and it can continue beyond that.
The good news now. This week, I’ll be sharing with you what sleep paralysis is, tell-tale symptoms, answering questions like “can sleep paralysis can cause death?” I’ll also share how to stop sleep paralysis in its tracks.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Imagine this: you’ve taken steps to implement a healthy sleep routine, maybe even given your bedroom a sleep ready makeover and cut down on cell phone use before bed. But you’re facing a daunting problem: you fall asleep, only to wake up in the middle of the night with what you think are bad dreams or nightmares.
In fact, sleep paralysis is more than a nightmare. Sleep paralysis is terrifying in that you’re unable to momentarily move your muscles. Unlike in a nightmare, sleep paralysis happens when you’re mentally alert, so it’s understandably terrifying. It can happen as you’re falling asleep or waking up.
On the other end of the spectrum from feeling paralyzed is a mind that never stops. A racing mind actually in some ways is an easier fix. A cooling headband like Ebb CoolDrift calms our central nervous system, meaning we don’t feel trapped in our anxious thoughts.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
One of the most frustrating things about sleep paralysis is, unlike a disorder like sleep apnea, we aren’t entirely sure what causes it.
What we do know is that sleep paralysis disrupts REM sleep, where your most vivid dreams occur. Sleep paralysis is classified as hypnagogic if it happens as you’re falling asleep, and predormital if it takes place while waking.
Most sleep experts think that sleep paralysis occurs when we become alert in between REM and other sleep stages. During regular REM sleep, your heart rate and breathing accelerates, while your body enters a stage called antonia. That’s just a fancy way of saying your muscles become paralyzed. It’s a normal part of sleep– sleep paralysis is being aware and awake while it is happening.
While we can’t pinpoint exactly what makes you more susceptible to sleep paralysis, risk factors include: chronic anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, sleep medications, sleep deprived, PTSD, and even sleeping disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy
It’s also more common in certain populations. Studies show that students and psychiatric patients are at highest risk for sleep paralysis, with up to 28 percent of students and just under 32 percent of psychiatric patients experiencing at least a single episode.
How Do I Tell If I Have Sleep Paralysis?
How do you even know you have sleep paralysis? Before you’re tempted to log onto WebMD and self diagnose, here are the main symptoms of sleep paralysis, and who is most likely to experience it.
Sleep Paralysis Symptoms Are Intense
While both sleep paralysis and nightmares can cause anxiety and insomnia, sleep paralysis is something that’s hard to brush off. The most common symptoms include:
While temporary, the most distinguishing, and perhaps terrifying symptom of sleep paralysis is the inability to move your muscles, despite being aware of your surroundings.
Not everyone has hallucinations, but many suffering from sleep paralysis have described seeing demons, in the forms of intruders, ‘evil’ noises, a feeling of a sinister presence, or even apparitions. This happens because sleep paralysis coincides with REM sleep, the sleep cycle responsible for restoring memory, mood, and also responsible for our most intense dreams.
Besides not being able to move muscles, sleep paralysis also can come with chest pressure, difficulty breathing, headaches, muscle discomfort, and generalized achiness or pain, which can extend beyond the episode.
Due to the intense nature of sleep paralysis, mental health can be impacted during the episodes, with intense feelings of fear, doom, dying, and paranoia, especially when accompanied by hallucinations.
Sleep Paralysis Can Occur Once, Many Times, or Chronically
The other tricky thing about sleep paralysis is that people tend to experience it differently. It’s possible to have a single episode of sleep paralysis, while others suffer from it most nights. While a study in PubMed estimates that about 8 percent of us experience sleep paralysis at least once in our lives, a small percentage have it several times a week, which can lead to sleep deprivation and its associated risks.
You Should Get an Official Diagnosis
All this being said, of course, the very best way to tell if you have sleep paralysis is by consulting with a medical professional. If these symptoms above fit you and it’s something that disrupts your sleep, it’s best to get checked out.
How to Get Rid of Sleep Paralysis
The good news is that, even though sleep paralysis can cause distress, it doesn’t result in death or other serious health issues like some fear. The bigger concern is the long term mental toll, and potential for sleep deprivation. While there is no one single cure for sleep paralysis, here are my top tips for taming it and getting back to restorative sleep.
Cope During An Episode
Sometimes the best method is to find ways to cope during an episode, and it all has to do with a combination of cognitive and physical relaxation. Before you go to bed, make a list of affirmations and factual statements: that the episode won’t last and won’t do any harm to your body. Memorizing these and practicing them may be helpful. Seek out a mental health professional to work through fears of death and harm.
Schedule Some Therapy
Besides talk therapy, it’s critical you address any other mental health issues, such as chronic anxiety and depression and PTSD, all of which, as I mentioned, increase your risk for episodes of sleep paralysis.
Even with therapy, you’ll want to adapt ways to better manage daily stress. My recommendations include exercise; natural sunlight; practices such as reflexology and yoga, and, with the guidance of a health professional, natural supplements. One of my favorite ways to help clients relax with high quality magnesium, like Jigsaw Health Magnesium. Magnesium can help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and supports everyday health.
Ask about Switching Your Meds
I mentioned that some meds are linked to sleep paralysis. Research suggests that sedative medications, such as benzodiazepines, can increase your risk for sleep disorders like paralysis. If you recently started a new sedative, you should ask your doctor if this could be an underlying factor and if there are alternatives.
Treat Other Sleep Disorders
It’s possible to have more than one sleep disorder at a time. Not only does having another sleep disorder impact your mental and physical health, but it can also contribute to sleep paralysis. Make sure you’re being properly treated for sleep apnea and narcolepsy. If you have been snoring, a mouth guard at night like Zyppah can end your snoring and help you sleep better.
Invest in Your Physical Health
Finally, while there’s no one way to get rid of sleep paralysis, taking care of your physical health may go a long way. Since high blood pressure has been linked to sleep paralysis, regular exercise and a healthy diet can lower your risks.
I hope that simply knowing more about sleep paralysis will help reduce your overall concerns and have a positive impact on its frequency and help you reduce your overall stress around the phenomena.