What Is Sleep Paralysis?

6th December 2018

Slumber Centre

The NHS defines sleep paralysis as ‘the temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when you’re waking up or falling asleep’. Imagine waking up from sleep, feeling like you are conscious but being completely immobilised, unable to move your head or your body however much you are willing yourself to do so. Sounds pretty frightening doesn’t it?

As well as being unable to move, sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, shortness of breath and a strong feeling of pressure on the chest. Although it cannot cause you any harm, it can be an extremely scary, unpleasant experience and as a result, the idea of sleep paralysis has formed the basis of many horror films and television series over the years. The most recent being the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, where the character Eleanor Crain suffers from sleep paralysis, and sees visions of the Bent Neck Lady.

Why does sleep paralysis occur?

Throughout the course of the night, we all pass through various cycles of sleep. Each stage is important in helping our brains and bodies recover. The stage where we are in our deepest sleep is known as the REM (rapid eye movement) stage. During REM sleep, the brain is extremely active and we often will have vivid dreams whilst the muscles in the body are essentially ‘turned off’ and unable to move. This stops us acting out our dreams whilst we sleep.

Sleep paralysis happens when parts of the REM sleep occur when someone is awake. The paralysis of muscles in the body and vivid dreams that are key features of REM sleep are occurring, whilst you are awake. This can either happen when an individual is in a hypnopompic state (when waking up) or hypnogogic state (when falling asleep).

Who can experience sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is not uncommon and can occur in anyone and any age although teenagers and young adults are more likely to be affected. Some studies have suggested that up to 30% of the population will experience sleep paralysis once in their life, although other research believes that it is a lot higher than this and that most people will experience it at some point.

What causes sleep paralysis?

Plenty of research has been conducted into sleep paralysis. A definitive cause has not been found although certain factors can increase the likelihood of you experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis.

A study was conducted in the USA, with a sample size of 36,000 people from different cultures and groups. The study found that around 8% of the general population experiences sleep paralysis but certain groups are more likely to experience it. For example around 28% of students reported incidents of sleep paralysis, as well as 32% of those with psychiatric disorders such as depression or anxiety. A likely reason for this is that both of these types of people are more likely to experience poor quality sleep, from things such as stress or anxiety.

It has also been found that those who suffer from other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or sleep apnoea are more likely to experience episodes of sleep paralysis. There have also been studies that have found a genetic basis to sleep paralysis, so if someone in your family has a history of sleep paralysis, you may be more likely to experience an episode.

The history of sleep paralysis

The first documented account of sleep paralysis dates back to 1664 when Dutch physician Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck described one of his patient’s symptoms as:

“…in the night time, when she was composing herself to sleep, sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was choked by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or breath and when she endeavoured to throw off the burthen, she was not able to stir her members.”

This suggests that physicians have recognised sleep paralysis as a medical condition for hundreds of years.

A painting by Henry Fuseli called ‘The Nightmare’ is thought to be an early depiction of sleep paralysis. The painting shows a sleeping woman, with a demon sitting on her chest and a shadowy figure at the end of her bed.

There have also been theories surrounding the role of sleep paralysis within the Salem Witch trials in 1692. Evidence presented at the time lead the jury to convict countless of witchcraft, but more recent analysis of the evidence indicates that they could have actually been describing symptoms of sleep paralysis.

Throughout the world there are still countless interpretations of the phenomena of sleep paralysis from being labelled as a ‘ghost oppression’ in Chinese culture to being caused by a spirit-like creature called the ‘Jinn’ in Egypt.

The Nightmare U L Oaro80
The Nightmare - Henry Fuseli

Treatments for sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis typically occurs in those that have poor, disturbed or irregular sleeping patterns so the first step in treating sleep paralysis is to improve your sleeping habits. Try and stick to a regular sleeping pattern, and aim for between 6 to 8 hours of good quality sleep every night. A lot of us tend not to get enough sleep during the week, and attempt to catch up with it over the weekend. However going to bed and waking up around the same time every day can help improve your overall sleep quality.

Avoiding big meals, caffeine or alcohol can help to reduce the likelihood of sleep paralysis occurring, as well as ensuring you take regular exercise.

Although sleep paralysis isn’t caused by your sleeping position, if you sleep on your back you are more likely to experience an attack. It is hard to control our sleeping position through the night, but if you try to sleep on your side or front, it may reduce the likelihood of your experiencing sleep paralysis.

In most instances, sleep paralysis is a one-off or very rare occurrence and there would be no need to see a doctor. However, if you begin to experience it regularly and it causes you anxiety, or starts to have an impact on how you function during the day, you should consider speaking to a doctor. A specialist may prescribe low doses of certain antidepressant medication, as this can alter REM sleep.