Here's What Scientists Say About Sleep Paralysis

Although it isn't a deadly problem, sleep paralysis can cause suffering, so we should know how to recognize its symptoms and causes.
Here's What Scientists Say About Sleep Paralysis

Last update: 04 March, 2020

Maybe you’ve never heard anything about sleep paralysis, maybe you have. We want to tell you about it, what effect it has on your body, and what you can possibly do to avoid it.

It’s really not a serious illness. Scientists recognize it as a phenomenon that happens when your body is resting, generally while you’re sleeping. Scientists have placed it in an international classification of sleep disorders as a parasomnia.

A woman sleeping in bed.

What is sleep paralysis?

If you’ve ever woken up in bed and tried to get up, but couldn’t, you could have suffered from sleep paralysis. It’s a muscular condition that causes weakness or looseness in the muscles when you’re asleep. This effect temporarily prevents any muscle movement.

This phenomenon normally happens at the moment we fall asleep, or when we wake up. The effect has a very short duration; it can last between one and five minutes. Sleep paralysis can often make you very scared and distressed, in spite of being perfectly awake and lucid.

You won’t be able to move your muscles or even say a single word. Although it can be difficult, the best thing to do is to calm down and wait patiently until it wears off naturally.

Science also explains that this effect is caused by a small failure in the nervous system. The brain wakes from the sleep state, but, due to the deep state of relaxation, the body doesn’t obey the orders the brain sends for a short period of time. This explanation might seem too simple, which is why many people aren’t too happy about it!

Symptoms of sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis can occur in a healthy individual without any prior notice, although it’s important to highlight that this doesn’t affect the person’s health. It’s a relatively common and ordinary phenomenon. According to one study, about 8% of the population could suffer from it at least once in their life.

In some cases, sleep paralysis is directly related to people who already suffer from narcolepsy. It’s an uncommon illness that causes sudden episodes of sleep that are impossible to predict.

These are the most common symptoms of sleep paralysis:

  • You can’t scream or speak – your mind works perfectly, but your body can’t react.
  • A sensation of distress or fear due to the paralysis
  • A sensation of pressure in your chest and difficulty breathing
  • You’re aware of everything, but you can’t move
  • You can feel like the mattress is sinking, or other strange tactile sensations that aren’t actually happening.
A woman laying awake in bed with sleep paralysis.

Why does sleep paralysis happen?

Sleep paralysis happens when the body and mind aren’t well-connected for a time. During the REM cycle we usually dream, and our bodies can become completely paralyzed due to the muscles relaxing we rest. Glycine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) are two chemicals that help cause this “paralysis” so that we don’t move during the night.

When our brain wakes up in the middle of the REM cycle, before finishing the whole process, then this can cause this paralysis because the muscles still haven’t recovered from the rest period.

The most common causes of sleep paralysis – which, as we said, isn’t at all harmful to your body – can be many:

  • Experiencing a lot of stress
  • Being under a lot of pressure
  • Sleeping poorly many nights in a row, or not getting enough sleep

Treatment for sleep paralysis

If you’ve only suffered from sleep paralysis once, then you don’t have anything to worry about, because it doesn’t cause any health problems. Most of the time there isn’t any specific treatment, although here’s what you should do if it happens to you again:

  • The first thing is to relax and remind yourself that nothing bad is happening, there’s no reason to panic
  • Relax and wait patiently for a few minutes until the paralysis starts fading away
  • To start to recover mobility, move your fingers and toes little by little
  • Once you start to move parts of your body, get up from the bed calmly and try to walk slowly

If this happens to you frequently, then consult a doctor, as you could have an underlying sleeping disorder. However, it’s important to remember that it isn’t harmful to your health.

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