What is Sleep Paralysis and Why Does it Happen?



What is sleep paralysis and why does it happen? While we usually think of being asleep or awake as clearly defined and distinct, conditions like sleep paralysis challenge these fixed boundaries.

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up. Individuals remain aware during episodes, which frequently involve troubling hallucinations and a sensation of suffocation.

These episodes of sleep paralysis involve elements of both sleep and wakefulness, which is part of why they can give rise to distressing symptoms.

While much is still unknown about sleep paralysis, a review of its types, symptoms, causes, impacts, and treatment can enable a better understanding of the condition and how to try to prevent it.

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What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a condition identified by a brief loss of muscle control, known as atonia, that happens just after falling asleep or waking up. In addition to atonia, people often have hallucinations during episodes of sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is categorized as a type of parasomnia. Parasomnias are abnormal behaviors during sleep. Because it is connected to the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle, sleep paralysis is considered to be a REM parasomnia.

Standard REM sleep involves vivid dreaming as well as atonia, which helps prevent acting out dreams. However, under normal circumstances, atonia ends upon waking up, so a person never becomes conscious of this inability to move.

As a result, researchers believe that sleep paralysis involves a mixed state of consciousness that blends both wakefulness and REM sleep. In effect, the atonia and mental imagery of REM sleep seems to persist even into a state of being aware and awake.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

The exact cause of sleep paralysis is unknown. Studies have examined data to see what is associated with a higher risk of sleep paralysis and have found mixed results. Based on that research, researchers believe that multiple factors are involved in provoking sleep paralysis.

Sleep disorders and other sleeping problems have shown some of the strongest correlations with isolated sleep paralysis. Higher rates of sleep paralysis — 38% in one study — are reported by people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder of repeated lapses in breathing. Sleep paralysis also has been found to be more common in people with nighttime leg cramps.

Insomnia symptoms like having a hard time falling asleep and excessive daytime sleepiness have been found to be associated with sleep paralysis. People whose circadian rhythms are not aligned with their local day-night cycle, such as people with jet lag and shift workers, may also be at higher risk of sleep paralysis.

Certain mental health conditions have shown a connection with sleep paralysis. People with anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, appear to be more likely to experience the condition. Some of the strongest associations are in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others who have had exposure to childhood sexual abuse or other types of physical and emotional distress. Stopping alcohol or antidepressants can also lead to REM rebound, which may cause sleep paralysis too.

Studies have found a higher risk in people with a family history of sleep paralysis, but no specific genetic basis has been identified.

Some studies have found that people who show traits of imaginativeness and disassociating from their immediate environment, such as with daydreaming, are more likely to experience sleep paralysis. There may be a link as well between sleep paralysis and vivid nightmares and/or lucid dreaming.

With all of these correlations, it is unknown whether there is any causation, and if so, whether sleep paralysis is the cause, effect, or if the relationship is bidirectional. Further research is necessary to investigate these correlations and better understand the numerous potential causes of sleep paralysis.

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Source: Youtube