The first time it happened, my heart pounded so hard, I thought it would explode any second. I knew I had to go into the room to take a final exam, but the door was shut. Unless I passed the exam, I couldn’t graduate. I tried but couldn’t grab the door handle. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t yell or move my body at all. After a few minutes, I realized I had been dreaming and was able to sit up to clear my head. Over the years, I experienced a few more episodes of what I learned was sleep paralysis.
Most people who experience sleep paralysis suddenly find themselves unable to move or speak when they’re either falling asleep or awakening, according to MedicineNet.com. Fear sets in even before they realize they’ve been dreaming.
Individuals experience sleep paralysis when an irregularity in moving between the stages of sleep occurs. As a person moves into or out of the rapid eye movement (REM) stage — the deepest part of the sleep cycle — the normal connections between the mind and the body get unexpectedly interrupted.
Up to 40 percent of the population experiences this disorder, WebMD reports. It often first appears during an individual’s teens, though patients of all ages can experience it. Sometimes sleep paralysis runs in families.
Experts believe that the primary causes include lack of sleep, changes in a sleep schedule, mental conditions like stress, sleeping on your back, use of some medications or substance abuse. The condition has also been linked to other sleep disorders such leg cramps at night. Jet lag is another potential culprit.
Signs and Symptoms
Students at Stanford University maintain that “sleep paralysis” actually occurs in the typical sleeper every night. Strictly speaking, the terrifying part of the disorder is actually the awareness of it that patients experience.
The individual typically awakens suddenly. Sometimes it’s only possible to move the eyes or continue breathing. The patient becomes extremely frightened and feels literally frozen in bed. When hallucinations are part of the package, the inability to scream can lead to total fear.
During the REM stage, the body turns off all muscle activity so that it’s impossible to act out the frequent dreams associated with this part of the sleep cycle. The mechanism that prevents physical activity is known as REM atonia. In some patients, the mechanism malfunctions, causing sleep walking and other odd behavior.
For others, REM atonia actually works too well. The result can be a terrifying episode of sleep paralysis.
For most individuals who experience this disorder, the situation is temporary and harmless. The bodies of some people simply take longer to disarm REM atonia than those of others.
In rare cases, sleep paralysis at the beginning of sleep can signal narcolepsy. Any individual who experiences significant disruption of his or her state of mind and sleep should consult a health care provider. This might result in a referral to a sleep specialist for overnight sleep studies and other types of tests.
Most people need no treatment for this condition. A sleep study years after my initial episode revealed that I suffered from one of the lower grades of sleep apnea. While I have never been able to get a full six to eight hours of sleep at night, the episodes of sleep paralysis stopped once I set a specific hour at which to go to bed and stuck to it. Not eating anything for at least two hours before retiring helped. Making a point of meditating for at least 15 minutes at night cleared each day’s stress and also helped set the stage for a relaxing rest.