Sleep paralysis is a problem that occurs during the hypnagogic or hypnopompic state (while falling asleep or while waking up respectively). It is characterised by being unable to move, speak or even shout. It is often accompanied by a disturbing sense of a presence and/or by hallucinations. This is not a rare phenomenon, and is experienced at some stage by 20 to 30% of the population. So what are the causes of sleep paralysis, and most importantly, what can you do to combat this unpleasant and frightening state?
The paralysis of the body and inability to speak at night is often accompanied by hallucinations and the sense of a threatening presence. There are several levels of hallucinations, ranging from minimal illusions to a conviction that the experience is real:
- In two thirds of cases, people experience only the sense of a presence or another entity. This presence is usually “felt”, with the person sensing that the presence is outside of their field of vision, standing in the room or sitting on the bed.
- The presence sometimes seems disturbing, inquisitive or evil.
- More rarely, the presence can be perceived to become aggressive, sitting on the person’s torso, trying to choke or strangle them.
This phenomenon has captured the collective imagination and inspired numerous artists worldwide.
What causes sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when brain activity is most active, as it is the phase in which we dream. This phase lasts around 15 to 20 minutes.
During REM sleep, the body naturally becomes immobile. This is why people who experience sleep paralysis cannot move. In reality, this waking nightmare is a result of a period of partial or incomplete waking, when the brain is awake but the body is still in a REM sleep state.
The hallucinations and perception of presences are due to fear. In fact, when the brain is still in an intermediate state of consciousness between sleeping and waking, it becomes gripped by fear and tries to find an explanation for the paralysis, thus conjuring up the frightening presence or entity. Sleep specialist Dr. Royan-Parola explains that “anxiety can generate many interpretations in order to justify and explain what is happening. It is so disturbing to find yourself in this situation, that we sometimes have the feeling we are slipping into another dimension, meeting a person or thing that is threatening our lives. The brain cannot understand sleep paralysis, and being very logical, tries to hang on to something that might explain it.”
Sleep paralysis is a symptom of narcolepsy, a sleep disorder which involves falling asleep involuntarily. But not all people who experience sleep paralysis are affected. Stress, anxiety, a sudden change in a person’s life (a bereavement, moving house, a new job, etc.), or irregular sleep routines are other factors that can increase the risks of this unpleasant experience.
How to treat sleep paralysis?
Apart from the the frightening aspect of the sensations described above leading to stress and anxiety, sleep paralysis does not pose any actual danger.
In order to overcome it, above all you need to be aware of what is happening, and understand the symptoms and causes. Simply having an explanation for what is happening can often not only get rid of sleep paralysis but also the associated hallucinations.
During night time paralysis, in order to overcome it, the most important thing is not to try and fight it. Doctor Royan-Parola specifies that “the more we try and fight against this sensation and the more we try to wake up, the less successful we are. The best thing is to completely let go, and to let yourself relax. Either you will then fall back asleep meaning the sensation doesn’t last as long, or you fight against it and run the risk of staying in this unpleasant intermediary state for longer.”
As a preventative measure, to help you fall asleep more easily, use relaxation techniques such as sophrology or meditation.