Sleep paralysis is a state, during waking up or falling asleep, in which a person is aware but unable to move or speak. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During this paralysis, people hallucinate something scary and haunting, which often results in fear. It generally lasts less than a couple of minutes. It is estimated that 50% of the population has experienced it at least once in their lifetime.
Sleep paralysis occurs due to other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is an overpowering need to sleep caused by a problem with the brain’s ability to regulate sleep. It can also stem from periods marked by lack of sleep, medical or anesthetic error, or high levels of stress.
During this scary phenomenon, people hear humming, hissing, static, zapping, and buzzing noises. Other sounds such as voices, whispers and roars and sometimes fear demonic presence are also experienced. Many people have said that the experience a demonic creature who sits on their chest while they are sleeping.
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Why Does Sleep Paralysis Occur?
During sleep, our body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. It is during the REM sleep when dreams occur, the rest of the body remains very relaxed but eyes move rapidly. When we become aware before the REM cycle has finished, we notice that we can not move or speak. Studies found that individuals who experience sleep paralysis have shorter REM latencies than normal along with shortened NREM and REM sleep cycles, and fragmentation of REM sleep.
The characteristic fragmentation of REM sleep, hypnopompic, and hypnagogic hallucinations have a heritable component in other parasomnias, which lends credence to the idea that sleep paralysis is also genetic.
There is no formal treatment for sleep paralysis, but we can take certain steps to help prevent it. The safest treatment for this is for people to adopt healthier sleeping habits. Avoid sleeping on the back, which has been linked to the condition.
Treating any underlying conditions such as narcolepsy may help if you are anxious or unable to sleep well.
We should avoid overuse of stimulants, such as tobacco and alcohol — coffee, surprisingly, has not been deemed risky in this context — though the evidence that these affect the chances of experiencing sleep paralysis is mixed.