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Sleep Paralysis: Maddening (But Harmless)

Sleep Disorders Treatment

“Okay, so now I know I’m going mad. I woke-up during the night last night and couldn’t breathe, move, or scream for help. Yikes, what’s up?!”

The topic of sleep-related disorders emerged in the forum Friday. Much of it read like sleep paralysis (SP), so I promised an educational article.

For the record, I’ve experienced SP.

Check-out the image. It’s entitled The Nightmare, and was painted by Swiss-Brit Henry Fuseli in 1781. The story goes it’s a depiction of a SP episode. That demonic critter sitting on the woman’s chest? An incubus.

It’s not surprising that over the centuries SP has been considered the devil’s work.

Sleep Paralysis: A Blow-By-Blow

From my experience, here’s how SP often goes down. You’re in the midst of what sure seems like sleep. Suddenly you awaken to the horrifying realization that you can’t breathe. Yes, it feels like that demon from Fuseli’s painting is sitting on your chest. Ah, but there’s more – you’re unable to move or talk.

Wildest thing is, you’re aware all of this is going on. And you try to gather every ounce of inner strength to catch a breath and move. You begin to wonder if it’s futile, and perhaps the nightmare will resolve if you can fall back to sleep.

“So What Is Sleep Paralysis?”

In an effort to truly understand SP, we need to take a look at some definitions…

  • Narcolepsy: An over-the-top urge to sleep at inappropriate times.
  • Hypnagogic: The transitional stage from wakefulness to sleep.
  • Hynopompic: The transitional stage from sleep to wakefulness.
  • Hynapgogic/Hynopompic Hallucinations: Internally-generated stimuli that occurs during both transitional stages. These can include: phosphenes (single or beautifully colored random speckles, lines or geometrical patterns, figurative images), imagery representing movement through tunnels of light, the Tetris effect (imagery based upon engaging in a repetitive activity – especially a new one – for a long period of time before sleep), faint or loud noises – even crashes or bangs, hearing odd snippets of your own speech, tastes, smells, and skin sensations.
  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: A normal stage of sleep characterized by random movement of the eyes. In adults, REM sleep typically occupies 20–25% of total sleep-time. Vividly recalled dreams mostly occur during REM sleep.
  • REM atonia: A degree of paralysis that occurs as a natural part of REM sleep.

(By the way, anytime I provide a list of symptoms and disorders, I always urge readers to be careful what they buy-in to. Deal?)

News flash! SP is not harmful. It can occur in individuals who have assorted physical, emotional, and mental stuff cooking. And it can happen to those with nothing going on.

It’s thought that SP may be next-of-kin to REM atonia.

SP can occur during both hypnagogic and hypnopompic states. When it occurs during the transition from wakefulness to sleep, one is aware while the body shuts down for REM sleep. It’s known as hypnagogic SP. When SP occurs while transitioning into wakefulness, the individual becomes aware before the REM cycle is complete. Makes sense this is known as hypnopompic SP.

It wouldn’t be at all unusual for someone experiencing SP to also experience hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations.

SP can last from seconds to several minutes. Rarely, it can go on for hours. In spite of how it may feel, the paralysis is not complete. It’s been proven by the detection of eye movement during an episode.

A SP episode is often terminated by a sound or a touch on the body.

How common is SP? Well, a survey of Japanese, Nigerian, Kuwaiti, Sudanese, and American medical students revealed that 24% reported at least one SP episode in their lifetime.

“Anything That Can Make Me SP High-Risk?”

First of all – go figure – there is no known cause of SP. However, studies floating about suggest the following increase the likelihood of an episode…

  • History of narcolepsy
  • History of panic attacks and/or panic disorder
  • History of disrupted sleep schedules or circadian rhythm disturbances
  • Spiking stress
  • Sudden environmental or lifestyle changes
  • A crystal-clear dream immediately preceding an episode
  • Excessive alcohol consumption with inadequate sleep
  • Sleeping face-up (I learned that one a looong time ago)

“What Can I Do About It (other than the flip-side of what I just read)?”

As with most anything we discuss here on chipur, the first step is always education. And learning about the stages of sleep, and REM atonia, is paramount. How could you ever hope to work yourself out of a jam if you don’t fully understand it?

More tips…

  • If SP is becoming a chronic problem, get yourself assessed for narcolepsy.
  • Make sure you’re getting sufficient sleep.
  • Knock down the stress.
  • Exercise regularly, but not too close to sack-time.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Meds regimens are available if episodes are occurring at least once a week for six months.

Good Night

As someone who’s endured sleep paralysis, I know it’s a horrifying experience. And once you’ve had the pleasure, it’s so easy to live in fear of the next episode. Be assured, it isn’t a lifetime proposition. And it sure as heck won’t hurt you.

Do you have your own experiences with sleep paralysis? It’d be great if you’d share in a comment…

Would you like to read more chipur articles on the biology of the mood and anxiety disorders? Click here. How ’bout pieces on the psychology of it all? Right here.

  • Patricia Miller

    OH, so THAT is what those are!! I just thought they were a peculiar type of nightmare. I didn’t know they had a specific name. Thanks for the great article and excellent information, as usual.

    • You’re welcome, Patricia. A terrible, terrible feeling, right? Well, at least it’s nice to know what it is – and that it’s harmless. Thanks for the comment. Bill

  • michelle brown

    the Weirdest one , was my first one at age 11 , I was stuck trying to get out of it & move going super fast through a white tunnel & when I got loose & was able to move, it was already 1 a.m in the morning.

    • Appreciate your visit and comment, Michelle. No doubt, all sorts of funky things can happen when we go night-night. Glad you shared yours. Never know who may read it and say, “Dang, at least it isn’t just me.!”


  • Kelly

    Ok So I and suffer from SP. I feel so alone in this since noone I know has even heard of it let alone relate to what I go through. I am part of the lucky ones that have Accompanying hallucinations too :/ From being held down and screamed in the ear to faceless figures 3cms from my face. Its hard to explain without seeming crazy :( I was hoping to find a chat room with other ppl that have SP?

    • Hey, sorry no chat room, Kelly. But at least you know you aren’t the only one. Somehow I don’t believe you’re crazy. Glad you stopped-by and contributed. The more, the merrier…