The woman was in her late fifties. Every night she would fall asleep and then dream that she was unable to move, but that her husband would come into their room and try to attack her. Helpless, she could neither move nor scream.
“It went on for several years,” says Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University. “It was very difficult. She was exhausted.” It turns out the woman was suffering from a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis – when a person is asleep, but immobilized. Like many people with sleep paralysis, she also had “hypnagogic hallucinations” that she was attacked. “It’s not a serious illness,” Kushida says. “But it can be very disturbing.”
Causes of sleep paralysis
Just why or how this happens is not clear. Researchers believe that sleep paralysis is caused by a disrupted rapid eye movement cycle, as it mainly occurs when people enter or exit REM sleep. During this stage, their brain normally paralyzes their muscles anyway, so they don’t achieve their dreams. But during sleep paralysis, the sleeper is awake, or half awake, and is therefore aware that he cannot move.
Studies show that between 25% and 50% of Americans have had at least one sleep paralysis. Many affected people also suffer from narcolepsy, in which they fall asleep uncontrollably. Part of the sleep paralysis, sleep experts believe, may be genetic.
Other causes include stress and disrupted sleep schedules (think jet lag or a sleepless night). Several studies have also found links between social anxiety or panic disorder and sleep paralysis.
Obviously, an episode of sleep paralysis can be frightening, which has led to some unorthodox theories. Research shows that people in countries as diverse as China, East Africa, Mexico, Newfoundland and the United States have long believed that paralysis is caused by demons, witches, or other supernatural creatures.
Often the experience is accompanied by noises (such as a buzzing), sensations of being dragged out of bed or flying, and difficulty breathing. In fact, some researchers believe sleep paralysis is what’s really going on with the alien abduction stories.
What can you do about sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is frightening, but sleep specialist Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, says people can take steps at home to stop the episodes.
Skip the nap. “Sleepers seem more prone to sleep paralysis than non-sleepers,” Kushida says, “unless sleepers always sleep at the same time each day.”
Get as much sleep as possible. “There seems to be some evidence that people who lack sleep go into REM sleep very quickly, which means they’re always awake while their bodies are paralyzed,” says Kushida.
Don’t sleep on your back. Sleep experts have found a correlation between sleeping while lying down and being vulnerable to sleep paralysis.
Seek care. Because sleep paralysis can be linked to other sleep disorders, including REM sleep disturbances and narcolepsy, it’s important to see a sleep specialist if your paralysis occurs often, Kushida says. And if you’re dealing with high levels of stress or anxiety, see a mental health professional.
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