Ever experienced sleep paralysis? It’s when you find yourself unable to move or speak for a couple of minutes while falling asleep or waking up. Some people not only experience it regularly, but while paralysed also suffer from a choking sensation, breathing difficulty, pressure on the chest or hallucinations.
“Examples of hallucinations include seeing, feeling or hearing things that are not there. People often associate these symptoms with the supernatural because they invoke a sense of fear and anxiety,” explains Dr Michelle Chia, a resident doctor at DTAP Clinic.
Suffice it to say, it’s the stuff nightmares are made of. So what causes it, and can you stop it from happening to you?
Sleep paralysis happens when there’s a disruption in your sleep cycle
It may be easy to associate an unwelcomed visitor with sleep paralysis but there’s actually a science behind this phenomenon.
“When we sleep, our body relaxes and the muscles do not move. We have two stages of sleep—namely rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM).
Sleep paralysis usually occurs when there is a disruption or fragmentation to the REM sleep cycle,” says Dr Chia.
She adds that during sleep paralysis, the body’s transition to REM sleep is usually out of sync with the brain, so while you may be conscious, your body remains in a paralysed sleep state and is thus why you feel unable to move or speak.
As for hallucinations, they occur as the area of the brain that detects perceived threats is now in overdrive.
It can’t be treated but the symptoms can be alleviated
According to Dr Chia, there is no particular treatment for sleep paralysis, and no treatment is required if it only occurs once in a while.
“However, if the episodes increase in frequency, it may indicate an underlying sleep disorder which should be further checked out. The symptoms can be improved with better sleeping habits.”
To enjoy better sleep, she recommends having a comfortable sleep environment (like a clean, dark and cool bedroom), refraining from eating a heavy meal in the evening and staying away from electronic devices at least one hour before bed. She also suggests that you avoid napping after 3pm and to keep to a consistent sleep schedule even on weekends.
Sleep paralysis can be pretty damn terrifying but it really is just a disconnect between our mind and body. Practise better sleep hygiene and you just may wake up feeling as fresh as a daisy for the rest of your days.