Healthy Sleep

WHAT CAUSES SLEEP PARALYSIS?

November 17th 2020
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

What some people experience as a nightmare or a disturbing dream, other people experience in extremes as a regular occurrence in their sleep.

Studies have shown that about 8% of the population experience sleep paralysis at some point in their lives, varying in degrees of frequency.

Let’s take a look at sleep paralysis as a sleep disorder and the reasons that cause episodes of sleep paralysis in individuals.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder or a type of parasomnia wherein the rapid eye movement (REM sleep phase) of a person's sleep coincides with wakefulness. 

The phenomenon of sleep paralysis leads to vivid dreaming, usually involving fear and hallucinations, difficulty in breathing, and the inability to move or speak (atonia), which is the main symptom.

There are two classifications of sleep paralysis and they are classified according to which part of your sleep it occurs.

Hypnagogic sleep paralysis

If you experience sleep paralysis as you fall asleep, this is called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis at this phase is less noticeable since the body is relaxed during the early sleep phase, making the mind less aware of the effects of sleep paralysis.

Hypnopompic sleep paralysis

Hypnopompic is the more commonly experienced form of sleep paralysis as it occurs during the latter part of your sleep, or just when you're about to wake up.

The latter part of sleep is the REM sleep phase, where the mind is more active and we start to dream.

It is also during our REM sleep where the body becomes unable to move, as sleep paralysis is experienced when we are "awake" and aware. At the same time, the REM phase of our sleep is still ongoing.

Why do people experience sleep paralysis?

Sleep deprivation and disturbed sleep patterns

The exact cause of sleep paralysis is still undetermined, but if there's a common suspect, it would be the lack of sleep. Most of the people living with sleep paralysis also experience sleep disorders such as chronic insomnia.

Sleep paralysis can also occur in people who have generally altered sleep patterns, such as those working night shifts and those who have been jet lagged from travelling.

Not getting enough sleep or having a changing sleeping pattern often disrupts the stages of sleep, therefore affecting the REM phase.

Narcolepsy

More commonly known as daytime sleepiness, narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that's widely tied to sleep paralysis.

Although narcolepsy is not as common, the manifestations of it as a brain disorder causes a person to uncontrollably fall asleep and can sometimes lead to sleep paralysis.

Sleep apnea

Another common sleep disorder, sleep apnea, is also often linked to sleep paralysis.

Since sleep apnea causes obstructed airways during sleep, the gasps for breath or the sudden choking feeling at night experienced can intermittently wake people during their sleep.

Being woken in the middle of the night, especially towards the REM phase of your sleep cycle can send the body into sleep paralysis.

Mental health conditions

People living with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more susceptible to experiencing sleep paralysis.

The tricky thing about the relationship between mental health and sleep paralysis is that each one can cause the other.

Living with sleep paralysis can also cause anxiety, the same way anxiety can cause sleep paralysis.

Likewise, taking antidepressants or a sudden stop of taking medications for mental health conditions can also cause sleep paralysis.

Family history

Although there are no studies that genetically tie sleep paralysis as a hereditary condition, it has been observed that a family history of sleep paralysis is a potential risk factor.

How do you deal with sleep paralysis?

Seek medical advice

As with any medical conditions, seeking medical advice from a professional should be your first step.

When you experience symptoms of sleep paralysis, have a sleep specialist take a look into your condition to adequately address any underlying problems.

In most cases, a physician specialising in sleep health can accurately diagnose whether you're experiencing obstructive sleep apnea or narcolepsy that are common causes of sleep paralysis.

Set a sleep schedule

One of the leading causes of sleep disorders like insomnia is the lack of a sleep schedule. The body needs to get accustomed to patterns before our body clock aligns to our liking.

It usually is difficult at first since the body would take time to adjust, but repetition and a strict observance of sleep schedules can lead to better sleep.

Sticking to a predetermined time could potentially allow for fewer episodes of sleep deprivation and in return, fewer instances of sleep paralysis.

Practice sleep hygiene

The habits or rituals that we do right before we go to sleep are essential for our rest, which is known as sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene involves tailor-fitting your room for one purpose - a good night's sleep.

Some preparations typically involve ensuring that you sleep in a cool, quiet, and dark environment to allow your body's natural sleep cycle to occur. This allows bodies to properly go through the phases undisrupted - improving sleep quality.

Medication

In some cases, people who have experienced sleep paralysis are given medication to help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Some of the sleep medicine prescribed to people with sleep paralysis is formulated to discourage REM sleep from occurring.

While the medical treatment route may work, this often leads to more inferior sleep quality and may also cause a rebound effect when administered for a longer-term.