Why Does Sleep Paralysis Happen?
Why Does Sleep Paralysis Happen?

Sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience and it can be hard to calm down after an episode, especially if nobody else is around. It is exactly that, paralyzing, and trying to make sense of it while it's happening can be nearly impossible. While there is no clear cut method of trying to wake yourself up, better understanding the condition may make wrapping your head around the phenomenon just a little bit easier.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is brought about by being caught between two different stages of the sleep cycle, REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage in which your body is fully relaxed and your muscles do not move. Dreams also often occur at this stage of sleep. Sleep paralysis occurs when your body gets caught between REM and non-REM sleep in which you’re suddenly awoken in the middle of REM sleep. During sleep paralysis, your mind is fully awake but your body is still under the constraints of REM sleep leaving you unable to move. This sensation can be frightening on its own, and in rare cases you can continue to dream or hallucinate which can make the sensation go from uncomfortable to downright terrifying. 

Why Does It Happen?

There are a number of reasons why sleep paralysis can occur, and it is fairly common with most people likely to experience at least one episode over the course of their lifetime. While there is little that can definitively tie sleep paralysis to any one cause, there are certain behaviors that have been linked to an increased risk of experiencing sleep paralysis. 

Poor sleep hygiene is one of the main culprits in bringing about bouts of sleep paralysis. Not getting enough sleep and having an irregular sleep schedule have often left people to be more susceptible to sleep paralysis potentially due to the body having difficulty regulating its own sleep patterns. Mental stress has also been linked to episodes of sleep paralysis as stress on its own can lead to less restful sleep which may make it more prone to waking while shifting from one stage of sleep to the next. 

The causes of sleep paralysis are not completely within your control, unfortunately, as there are links between sleep paralysis and certain medical conditions. Sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and mental conditions such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, and panic disorder could also leave one vulnerable to experiencing sleep paralysis. Some experts believe that genetics may also play a role and that if your parents had problems with sleep paralysis, then you very well may too.  

Are Night Terrors and Sleep Paralysis the Same Thing?

While night terrors can be just as, if not more, frightening than sleep paralysis, they are two separate conditions and should not be conflated with one another. There are a number of differences between the two conditions, but the most notable one is whether or not the episode is remembered upon waking.

In the case of sleep paralysis, the episode is remembered by the sufferer as their brain was awake and they were fully cognizant as it occurred. In the case of night terrors, however, the one experiencing the episode will not have any recollection of the event as they were still asleep as it happened. It could be compared to sleepwalking in the sense that those who experience night terrors often get out of bed and wander their homes despite being fully asleep. While this may not sound as bad as sleep paralysis, the term terror likely refers to the people who are awake witnessing somebody have a night terror. 

Night terrors can be drastic and incredibly difficult to wake up from with those suffering having the potential to moan and scream during an episode. In a personal anecdote, my uncle suffers from night terrors and once as a teenager had an episode so bad he ended up jumping out a bedroom window because he had a dream he was being buried alive. While these incidents can be traumatic in extreme cases, they are markedly different from that of sleep paralysis and should be treated as such.

What Does This Mean for Treatment?

Luckily or unluckily, depending on how you look at it, there is little treatment needed for sleep paralysis. Since sleep paralysis is largely caused by disruptions or inconsistencies in sleep, treatments for it surround avoiding triggers and stressors that could disrupt your sleep and improving your existing sleep schedule to make it more consistent. As far as night terrors are concerned, if the condition is severe enough medications such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants are used to help treat it. This disparity in how these conditions are treated are the primary reason to avoid conflating the two conditions. 

Key Takeaways

Sleep paralysis can be a frightening and frustrating condition to contend with especially if there are already stressors in your daily life that cause you trouble. When it comes to mitigating the chances of suffering from another episode, it is imperative for you to consider how you go about sleeping on a daily basis. For many shift workers such as nurses, their inconsistent schedule is entirely out of their control and can make adopting a consistent sleep schedule nearly, if not entirely, impossible. In cases such as these, it is of even more importance to practice good sleep hygiene in other aspects such as taking the time to step away from screens and wind down before bedtime each night (or day if that’s what your schedule dictates). While you may feel helpless during these episodes, taking control of your sleep habits to the best of your ability can bring you one step closer to getting a better handle on your condition. 

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