Frozen may have been a cute film, but if you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night frozen AKA in the grips of sleep paralysis, it’s not so cute – Eamon Brown is here to tell you though that it’s not something to be overly worried about.
Given my history in “Sleep Medicine”, TBS publisher Alexandra Tselios recently read about a common disorder regarding sleep paralysis and asked me to write an article on it.
So, like the good-natured person, I caved and handed to the dictator, who I love, what she wanted.
To set the scene…
You are in bed, sleeping and dreaming of your next adventure in the Swiss Alps. Your alarm has not gone off yet, but for some reason you are suddenly awake and feel incapable of moving…enough to get your heart racing and for your forehead to be a little moist.
What has happened? Why can’t you move? Did you break your spine in the night?
After about a minute, it’s over, and your body returns to normal…but the question remains, what happened?
It is not uncommon to experience sleep paralysis at one point or another, because sleep paralysis happens to everyone. The reason we do not act out our dreams is because during the REM state (rapid, or random, eye movement) sleep stage our brain stops producing a neurotransmitter called “acetylcholine”, which is the neurotransmitter that controls most of our movement.
Essentially we are paralysed.
So what has happened when we feel sleep paralysis?
More then likely, other parts of our brain have woken us up, and we have regained consciousness faster than we have regained our ability to move.
Studies have been undertaken to find out why this happens and its frequency. In 2011 a study was completed that found 7.6 percent of the general population, 28.3 percent of students, and 31.9 percent of psychiatric patients experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis. Of the psychiatric patients with panic disorder, 34.6 percent reported lifetime sleep paralysis. This indicates that a solid percentage of us are experiencing the panic-ridden moments of being unsure if we are awake or not. It is scary, and many people through their own sense of paranoia might look into supernatural causes rather than simply a scientific reason, and there is clearly a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.
In fact, it’s worth digging a bit deeper and looking into “hypnopompic hallucinations” that occur during sleep paralysis that often lead people to believe they are having a physical interaction with an external entity. Some participants in sleep disorder studies have spoken of floating and flying sensations and others have experienced a debilitating sense of facing occult-like imagery. This can lead people to be fearful of going to sleep at night, resulting in inconsistent sleeping patterns and a cyclical pattern of poor sleep hygiene.
The important take-home note here is that sleep paralysis is nothing to worry about, unless it is affecting you randomly or frequently, such as during the day. Known as “Cataplexy” this is a very rare condition whereby people have sleep paralysis sensations throughout the day or when their brains become over stimulated. It is a very debilitating disorder. You might be more familiar with the term “Narcolepsy” whereby people spontaneously fall into sleep. This is a little different as it is caused by a hormone imbalance in the brain, the sufferer usually losing all consciousness during an episode. Sometimes, and more commonly, people my claim to have symptoms of these disorders, however, they may have an underlying condition that is affecting their sleep, causing them to have symptoms such as excessive daytime fatigue or disturbed sleep.
If you are concerned about your sleep or your night time health you should speak to a sleep physician.
But whatever you do, don’t freak everyone out and start telling people a demon is sitting on your chest…it is a bit over the top…