Scientists studying sleep have concluded that sleep paralysis is most often caused by the body's inability to move smoothly through the stages of sleep in the majority of cases. Sleep paralysis is only rarely associated with severe underlying psychiatric problems.

In many different ways throughout history, the symptoms of sleep paralysis have been described and often attributed to an "evil" presence, such as unseen night demons in ancient times, the old hag in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and alien abductors in modern times. A story of a shadowy evil creature that terrorizes helpless humans at night can be found in almost every culture throughout history. Attempts to understand this mysterious sleep-time paralysis and the accompanying feelings of terror have been made by people for a long time now.

What is sleep paralysis and how does it affect you?

Sleep paralysis is characterized by the sensation of being awake but unable to move. It occurs when a person transitions from one stage of wakefulness to another stage of sleep. When you are going through these transitions, you may find yourself unable to move or speak for a few seconds to several minutes. In addition, some people may experience pressure or a sense of choking. Other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, may be associated with sleep paralysis. Narcolepsy is characterized by an excessive desire to sleep caused by a malfunction in the brain's ability to regulate sleep.

When does sleep paralysis usually occur?

Sleep paralysis typically occurs one of two times during the night. The condition is called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis if it occurs as you are about to fall asleep. This type of sleep paralysis is known as hypnopompic or postorbital sleep paralysis when you wake up.

Is there any consequence to hypnagogic sleep paralysis?

As you drift off to sleep, your body begins to relax slowly. Typically, you become less aware of your surroundings and thus do not notice the change. In contrast, if you remain conscious or become conscious while falling asleep, you may notice that you cannot move or speak.

What exactly happens when you have hypnopompic sleep paralysis?

While sleeping, your body switches between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which is both beneficial. A single cycle of REM and NREM sleep lasts approximately 90 minutes in duration. NREM sleep is the first stage of sleep and can account for up to 75% of your total sleep time. In NREM sleep, your body relaxes and rejuvenates, allowing you to wake up refreshed. Your sleep shifts from NREM to REM after NREM. Even though your eyes are moving quickly and you have dreams, the rest of your body is completely relaxed. REM sleep is characterized by the "turning off" of muscles. If you become aware of your surroundings before the REM cycle has completed, you may notice that you cannot move or speak.

Who is at risk of developing sleep paralysis?

Up to four out of every ten people may have sleep paralysis. This common condition is frequently discovered during the adolescent years. However, it is available to men and women of any age. Sleep paralysis may run in families.

What is the procedure for diagnosing sleep paralysis?

Whether you are falling asleep or waking up, you may find yourself unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes at a time. This is an indication that you have isolated recurrent sleep paralysis. The majority of the time, there is no need to treat this condition.

What is the treatment for sleep paralysis?

The majority of people do not require treatment for sleep paralysis. Treatment of any underlying conditions such as narcolepsy may be beneficial if you are anxious or have difficulty sleeping. The following are examples of treatments that may be used:

Treatment options include: improving sleep habits, such as ensuring you get six to eight hours of sleep each night; taking antidepressant medication is prescribed to help regulate sleep cycles; treating any mental health issues that may be contributing to the sleep paralysis; and treating any other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy or leg cramps.

What should I do if I have sleep paralysis?

Nighttime demons or alien abductors are not something to be afraid of. If you have intermittent sleep paralysis, you can take steps to control the condition at home. To begin, make sure you are getting enough sleep. Make every effort to reduce stress in your life — especially just before bedtime — by doing whatever you can. If you sleep on your back, experiment with different sleeping positions. Also, consult your doctor if you experience sleep paralysis regularly, preventing you from getting a good night's sleep.

What is a sleep paralysis?

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