Well, science has an explanation for this scary yet common phenomena – it’s called Sleep Paralysis. And while it might leave you so frightened you become a true believer, most doctors do not consider sleep paralysis as a dangerous medical condition.
So, what exactly is going on, and should you really be worried along with being scared?
Understanding Sleep Paralysis
Sleep Paralysis, as the name suggests, is a phenomena where you wake up from a deep slumber only to find that you are temporarily paralyzed. You cannot move a single muscle in your body, and you can’t speak so also cannot ask for help. Also read: Tokophobia: Are you afraid of pregnant women?
That’s precisely why it’s so scary – it leaves you feeling helpless and frightened. What makes things worse is that sometimes people can also begin to feel choked or sense an explainable pressure on their chest, symptoms that resemble very closely to all those scary scenes from horror movies you are too scared to watch but still do.
And since you aren’t completely awake, you tend to feel more disoriented and hence more scared. For some, sleep paralysis happens once in a blue moon, while others can have several episodes within the same night.
It’s also sometimes more commonly seen in patients who suffer from sleep disorders like Narcolepsy, where the ability of the brain to regulate sleep patterns becomes dysfunctional and the patient has an overpowering need to fall off to sleep at all odd hours of the days. Also read: Have you heard of the Paris Syndrome?
Are There Different Kinds of Sleep Paralysis?
Yes, your body is susceptible to sleep paralysis at two different times during your sleep cycle.
- When you are just falling asleep and transitioning between wakefulness and deep sleep, only slightly conscious of your surroundings. This is called Hypnagogic or Predormital sleep paralysis.
- When you wake up from deep sleep and aren’t yet completely awake hence feeling disoriented too. This is called Hypnopompic or Postdormital sleep paralysis.
Both of these occur when the body transitions between REM and NREM or Non Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. NREM is the period before REM sleep and consists of 75% of your sleep cycle. This is the time your body repairs, restores and relaxes and hence your muscles temporarily shut down.
If you have an unusual heightened sense of awareness during the NREM cycle, it’s possible that you would conspicuously notice that you can’t talk or move, which is exactly what Sleep Paralysis is all about more often than not.
Experts believe that sleep paralysis is not serious; it’s merely a phenomenon that occurs when a person transitions between deep sleep and complete wakefulness.
During REM or Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, a person has dreams. And the muscles are completely relaxed, so much so that they freeze. Scientists believe that this is a natural mechanism of the body that keeps us from acting out a dream or moving about in the dream.
Muscle paralysis is caused by two brain chemicals, namely GABA and Glycine. So instead of something scary, think of it as the body’s safety mechanism. Also read: Why mental health counselling is important?
Could Sleep Paralysis Mean Something Is Wrong With Your Body?
Yes, the accompanying terror you feel when you find yourself paralyzed can be quite traumatic and mysterious, but there is rarely a bigger cause of worry once you are able to move and talk.
It’s very rare for sleep paralysis to be linked with any deep underlying psychological or psychiatric problems. In most cases, it’s just a sign that your body is not able to transition smoothly between the stages in your sleep cycle.
It’s harmless in the long run, though it can be very scary. Understanding why it happens can really help a person feel less distressed and frightened after a terrifying episode.
Especially when an episode is accompanied by hallucinations and the sensation of breathlessness, or when a person can sense a nearby malevolent presence, the experience can be quite unnerving as the person can momentarily believe it to be a brush with the supernatural.
Frequent episodes of Sleep paralysis simply mean that while you are sleeping, your brain and body are not working in a completely synchronized fashion. It could be brought on by stress, distraction and even tiredness.
So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night unable to move or talk, remind yourself that it’s just your body telling you that it’s not completely awake yet, and give it a few minutes to get on the same page as your brain rather than having a full-on panic attack.