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Don't Look Under the Bed: What is Sleep Paralysis?

By Yuan Cheng


Highlights

  • There are a number of environmental and neurological causes to Sleep Paralysis

  • Symptoms include hallucinations and muscle atonia

Introduction


Around 5-40% of the population suffers from Sleep Paralysis—a condition in which one gains consciousness during sleep but cannot move and may even hallucinate. While it sounds like something straight out of a horror movie, Sleep Paralysis has very scientific causes and is actually a treatable disorder.


Causes


Environmental

There are a number of causes for Sleep Paralysis, some of which include stress, jet lag, irregular work (and thus sleep) hours, lack of sleep, and alcohol/caffeine abuse. There could also be certain links between bedroom light/noise level and electronic usages with the occurrence of Sleep Paralysis.


Neurological

Sleep Paralysis can also happen in conjunction with narcolepsy, a condition in which the brain confounds sleep-wake boundaries throughout the day. Those affected by cataplexy (muscle weakness caused by emotional distress) or hypnagogic hallucinations (a mostly harmless disorder characterized by slight hallucinations while falling asleep) can also develop Sleep Paralysis.


Symptoms


The classic symptoms are:

  • Muscle Atonia: during normal REM sleep, your muscles are commanded by the brain to not move. During sleep paralysis, muscle atonia remains, meaning that you can’t speak/move, but the difference is that you have consciousness.

  • Hallucinations: both hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are reported, with some saying that they saw shadow people or aliens.

  • Suffocation: tightness around one’s throat and inability to breathe has been reported as well.

Conclusion


Treatment/Prevention

Sleep Paralysis could be temporary or permanent. If permanent, it can cause sleep-deprivation and chronic fatigue throughout the day; it is also not a pleasant experience in general, as hallucinations are usually uncanny or frightening. Prevention methods include staying away from electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, having a stable and relaxing bedtime schedule, and a comfortable room to sleep in (without too much loud noise or bright lights). Abstaining from drinking in the evening may also help. You can also go to a healthcare provider/medical professional for assistance.


Interesting Facts

Narcolepsy is the most common cause of Sleep Paralysis.


References


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