Sleep Paralysis Symptoms: the science, not the myth

Narcoleptic peopleFor a thorough understanding of the Narcolepsy disorder, click this image to go to our Narcolepsy Overview page. It discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of Narcolepsy.

Have you ever awaken from sleep only to find yourself not able to move, nor speak? Chances are, you have already experienced this. As much as 4 out of 10 people in the world have already suffered from this condition. What is interesting is that many people actually believe that the condition is caused by evil spirits. They believe that an evil spirit has taken control over their bodies. Or worse, they even relate it to alien abduction! Well, you can now cast your fears aside. This is simply a normal medical condition, coined by medical science as “Sleep Paralysis”.

SYMPTOMS

Sleep paralysis is when a person is unable to move or speak when falling asleep (“called hypnogogic”). It can also happen as they are waking up (“called hypnopompic”). Some may hear strange noises, like footsteps or voices. Others feel an existence of someone being in the room. They also feel a sense of suffocation, as if someone is sitting heavily on their chest. This is popularly termed as the “hag phenomenon”. The term is derived from an old folk belief from Newfoundland, South Carolina. The myth tells of an old hag who leaves her body at night, and sits on the chest of her victims.

Narcoleptic peopleFor a thorough understanding of the Narcolepsy disorder, click this image to go to our Narcolepsy Overview page. It discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of Narcolepsy.

CAUSES

Such sleep paralysis symptoms can be truly scary. But scientists explained that it is simply the result of a disconnection between the brain and the body. Your body is not moving smoothly through the normal stages of sleep.

During sleep, our brain releases sleep hormones that will travel through our blood stream. This hormone serves to paralyze our major muscle groups to stop movement. This is important that our body can rest while our mind is dreaming. It also keeps us from doing damage to ourselves or to others around us. This is because without the hormones or having little of it, our body will have limb thrashing. Some people would even sleepwalk as they act out their dreams.

In sleep paralysis, your body prematurely releases sleep hormones before your mind has actually fallen asleep. Thus, the feeling of an altered state of reality when falling asleep. In hypnopompic sleep paralysis, your body produces too much of the sleep hormones. Hence, it will take longer than usual for its effects to wear off. So even if your mind is already awake, the paralysis still lingers.

Sleep paralysis symptoms are most often associated with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder where a person feels uncontrollably sleepy all throughout the day. They also experience sudden attacks of sleep at any time. Not all people who suffer from the sleep paralysis symptoms have narcolepsy though. Sleep paralysis may possibly be a hereditary condition.  They can also be caused by the following;

  • lack of sleep
  • changes in sleep schedule
  • jet lag
  • sudden environmental or lifestyle changes
  • mental conditions such as stress or bipolar disorder
  • sleeping on the back
  • using certain medications
  • substance abuse

TREATMENTS

In order to help prevent sleep paralysis symptoms, you must do the following lifestyle changes;

  • Improve your sleeping habits and sleep for 8-10 hours a night
  • You must avoid stress. One of the major trigger for sleep paralysis is extreme stress in life.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet.
  • Avoid going to sleep while still hungry.
  • Try to avoid caffeine 5 hours before you go to sleep.
  • When you sleep, try not to sleep at your back. Sleep paralysis are most often experienced when sleeping in this position.
  • Treat any underlying mental health condition or sleep disorder that you may have.
  • Most importantly, just remember to relax. Believe that the symptoms are just temporary and will fade away.

Sleep paralysis is only a medical condition. If we associate it with evil and supernatural things, it will only cause panic and worsen our condition.