Sleep Paralysis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
One day last year I was taking a nap on the couch when I heard my mother come home from work. I woke up and saw her walk through the front door, and I tried to say hello to her. I was disturbed to find that I couldn't speak; my tongue was frozen in my mouth. I tried to move my body to get her attention, but I couldn't do that either. I was paralyzed.
Panic quickly set in, and although I had been breathing perfectly normally up until then, I suddenly felt like my lungs were constricted. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep, only to have the same scenario repeat itself a few moments later when I thought I heard her moving around in the kitchen. I was desperate to get her attention so that she could help me, but once again I could not move, and I would drift back to sleep. After about four more rounds of this, my brother came home from school and that was when I woke up -- for real.
That was when I realized that everything that had just happened hadn't been real. It was a freaky sensation, but I chalked it up to a bad dream... until it happened again a week later. Hoping that if perhaps I could understand what was happening, I could possibly change it, I did a Google search for "can't move while sleeping" and discovered the concept of "sleep paralysis."
Sleep paralysis is actually a fairly common condition characterized by either partial or total paralysis of muscles. It occurs upon awakening from sleep or when falling asleep, although the latter is much less likely. The episodes generally last anywhere from seconds to minutes, and outside stimuli like touch or sound may terminate it.
According to Wikipedia's article about sleep paralysis:
"It is closely related to the paralysis that occurs as a natural part of REM sleep, which is known as REM atonia. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain awakes from a REM state, but the body paralysis persists. This leaves the person fully conscious, but unable to move. In addition, the state may be accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (hypnopompic or hypnagogic) and an acute sense of danger."
Although I had never heard of sleep paralysis, this was clearly what I was experiencing. The same physiology that keeps us from acting out our dreams as we sleep was now keeping my body frozen as my mind was awake and aware. Most people experience severe panic symptoms during an episode, even as they know that their perceptions are false. After reading more on the subject, I decided I was one of the luckier ones. Many people also experience hallucinations during sleep paralysis. In particular, they may see an old hag in the room, or feel a witch or demon sitting on their chest and laboring their breathing. Although I hallucinated my mother coming home from work and was greatly disturbed when I couldn't reach out to her, I have never had the sensation of something evil lurking.
Sleep paralysis entails one or both of the following:
- Paralysis: occurs after waking up or just before falling asleep. You cannot move any body part, aside from involuntary movements such as blinking and breathing. "This paralysis is the same paralysis that occurs when dreaming. The brain paralyzes the muscles to prevent possible injury during dreams, as some body parts may move during dreaming. If the person wakes up suddenly, the brain may still think that it is dreaming, and sustains the paralysis." (Source: wikipedia.org)
- Hallucinations: Images or sounds that appear during the episode. The sensation that someone is standing beside you or somewhere close by in the room. Strange sounds. Some people feel a heavy weight on their chest, as if they are being sat on.
Although there are several theories, the actual cause of sleep paralysis is still unknown. However, several factors have been identified that may increase the chances of having an episode:
- Sleeping in a face upwards or supine position
- Irregular sleeping schedules; e.g., naps, sleeping in, sleep deprivation
- Increased stress
- Sudden environmental/lifestyle changes
- A lucid dream that immediately precedes the episode
For those who suffer severe and persistent sleep paralysis, there are medications that may improve the condition. One option is to take 0.5mg of Clonazepam at bedtime. Ritalin has also been used as a daytime medication, the idea being that establishing healthy sleep patterns will reduce instances of sleep paralysis. Before considering or taking any medications, however, you should consult your doctor to discuss your specific condition.
In all my research, the only other suggestion I found was to try to move your facial muscles during an episode, as it may be easier to move these than your arms or legs. Not only will it give you a sense of control, but it may be enough to ease you into wakefulness.
Consult Your Doctor
If you experience sleep paralysis and are concerned about its causes or symptoms, please consult your doctor. Any consideration of medications should be discussed with a medical professional.