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What is Sleep Paralysis?

Posted by Chris Rittmeester on

Have you ever woken during your slumber to find yourself paralyzed, unable to move or talk, seeing things that are not there and riddled with an overwhelming fear of supernatural suffocation? If you have experienced an episode similar to this, you are within the 8% of the population that experience Sleep Paralysis.


Photo credit: The Cut


Sleep paralysis, also known as “the worst thing ever”, is defined as “being unable to move during awakening” (Sharpless, 2016. "A clinician's guide to recurrent isolated sleep paralysis"). The condition is a type of parasomnia caused by a dysfunctional overlap of waking sleep stages and REM sleep. Even though there is no definitive cure, there are a few steps you can take to help reduce episodes of sleep paralysis.


Photo credit: Babyfaceplant


Sleep paralysis usually occurs when falling asleep or during awakening (just before you wake up). The person is aware but unable to move or speak. Generally each episode lasts less than a couple of minutes; even though it feels like a lifetime. The condition has not been properly studied, however, current research suggests that Sleep paralysis is a genetic condition triggered by sleep deprivation, abnormal sleep cycles or psychological stress (Avidan, Alon Y.; Zee, Phyllis C. 2011. Handbook of Sleep Medicine ).


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It also has a long history within many cultures and mythologies. In Cambodia, sleep paralysis is also known as “the ghost pushes you down,” and they believe that it is caused by deceased relatives coming back from the dead to haunt the living (Hinton, Devon E.; Pich, Vuth; Chhean, Dara; Pollack, Mark H. 2005.) In Egypt, Sleep Paralysis is thought to be an evil genie known as ‘The Jinn’, which terrorizes and can even kill those who suffer from the condition (Jalal, Baland; Hinton, Devon E. 2013)



So how can you reduce the frequency and severity of Sleep Paralysis?


Simple, don’t sleep. Although this will only be a valid solution for a week or so, before you go completely madddd. So if you value your sanity, here are a few tips to help reduce sleep paralysis.


Sleep on your stomach or side. Sleeping on your back  (supine position) has been found to especially intigate sleep paralysis.  Keeping a regular sleep schedule, reducing caffeine intake and maintaining quality sleep hygiene has also been found to reduce the frequency of sleep paralysis episodes.  Research has found a correlation between sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, “a long-term neurological disorder that involves a decreased ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles” (NIH Publication, 2016). Individuals with persistent Sleep paralysis should be evaluated for narcolepsy by their doctor. Although there has not been any large scale trials on medications to treat sleep paralysis, smaller trials have found that antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and GHB reduces sleep paralysis episodes. Although there is not enough substantial evidence to prescribe this as a treatment yet.


Photo credit: David Wolfe


If you would like to learn more about this intriguing condition, the 2015 "real-life" horror documentary film ‘The Nightmare’ discusses the causes of Sleep paralysis with extensive interviews and reenactments.




Feature image credit to David Wolfe. 

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