If you’ve been having trouble sleeping this past year, you’re not alone. Largely due to the financial and health concerns related to the pandemic, more than 30% of sleepers report sleep disturbances. It’s been even harder for people who already had sleep-related disorders before Covid.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine indicated that respondents are going to bed later and rising earlier, leading to poor sleep quality, not enough time spent asleep, and misaligned circadian rhythms, which affect our body’s internal processes that regulate our sleeping and waking time. The study also noted an increase in sleep paralysis and cataplexy, a muscle weakness associated with narcolepsy.
What is sleep paralysis? It sounds frightening — and, yes, an episode can be scary — but sleep paralysis is controllable, and those who experience it are often able to control and combat it with some simple techniques. More severe cases may need therapy, but these, too, can be minimized with the proper treatment.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a relatively common condition that causes a temporary loss of muscle function while sleeping. As many as 4 in 10 people experienced sleep paralysis in the U.S. Although the condition is most often recognized during the teen years, men and women of any age can have it. Sleep paralysis may run in families. Although this condition is not generally considered a cause for alarm, it can be quite frightening. Episodes can usually last anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.
While sleep paralysis isn’t entirely understood, experts have noted that it occurs more often in people who experience symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and narcolepsy. Sleep disorders can even present alongside menopause. However, sleep paralysis isn’t limited to people with these symptoms. Sometimes situational stressors can get tied in. For instance, children may have trouble maintaining sleep patterns during Covid.
When faced with the stress that can lead to sleep paralysis, your most important task is to find a way to maintain a healthy sleeping schedule. You should be going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day and engaging in tactics that will relax you before you go to bed, so you are more likely to fall asleep quickly and easily.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is just one of many common sleep disorders and there are different ways it can come about. For example, poor sleep hygiene can increase your risk of experiencing sleep paralysis. Disrupted or inconsistent sleep patterns, periods of sleep deprivation, and even too much sleep can heighten sleep paralysis risk. And although there is a lot of information about sleep paralysis out there, the full details of its causes are not entirely understood.
Researchers have identified two forms of sleep paralysis: hypnagogic sleep paralysis and hypnopompic sleep paralysis. Hypnagogic, or predormital, sleep paralysis is a common feature of narcolepsy that involves experiencing hallucinations and losing muscle control when you are falling asleep but are not yet fully asleep. The hallucinations may be more vivid and real than dreams, and they can confuse the viewer, who may have a hard time distinguishing between reality and the hallucination.
Hypnopompic, or postdormital, sleep paralysis is similar and features vivid hallucinations but occurs when you are waking up and are in a state between sleep and wakefulness. Sleepers report that these episodes can cause fear and may even have them leaping out of their bed in confusion.
Thankfully, there are many factors that you can avoid to lessen your risk of experiencing sleep paralysis. Any of these risk factors will increase the likelihood that you may experience sleep paralysis of some kind.
- Sleep deprivation: If you are in a situation where you are regularly not getting adequate sleep, you may be at risk for a sleep paralysis episode.
- Inconsistent sleep schedule: Changing your sleep patterns — for example, if you sleep in several hours later on weekends than you do during the week — can lead to sleep paralysis.
- Mental health conditions, such as chronic stress and depression: Those who suffer from mental health conditions such as PTSD or who have been exposed to childhood sexual abuse seem more prone to it.
- Sleeping on the back: Some research indicates that sleeping on your back leaves you more likely to experience sleep paralysis when waking up or going to sleep.
- Other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps: Sleep paralysis is a primary indication of narcolepsy. This disorder means the brain is having difficulty controlling your sleep cycle.
- Use of certain medications such as those for ADHD and depression.
- Substance abuse: Those with sleep disorders sometimes self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. In turn, substance abuse can lead to a range of sleep disorders, including sleep paralysis.
If you experience sleep paralysis, it’s a good idea to speak with a medical expert. It may hint at another underlying condition being present. Bipolar disorder, insomnia, anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, narcolepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder can accompany sleep paralysis.
What Is It Like To Experience Sleep Paralysis?
While sleep paralysis can be unsettling, if you awaken during an episode, there are a few indicators that you can look for that will tell you that this is what is happening.
- You may be unable to move your muscles
- You might feel as if something is pressing you into the bed
- Some people describe sleep paralysis as feeling like someone is sitting on them
- Difficulty breathing
- Surges of fear and brief hallucinations sometimes called dream paralysis
A sleep paralysis episode can be rough on the body, leaving you with aching muscles and sweating. But how long does sleep paralysis last? Thankfully, these episodes generally only last from a few seconds to a few minutes but can feel like they go on for much longer.
How To Stop Sleep Paralysis
Thankfully, there are many tips and tricks to help with combating sleep paralysis. For instance, you might try a sleepy-time tea or some relaxation breathing exercises. Sometimes, though, all you need to do is reclaim your bedroom as a place for sleep. If you also experience night sweats or hot flashes, finding the right mattress can make a world of difference.
Form better sleep habits
One of the most effective ways of preventing sleep paralysis is to form better sleep habits. This can be trickier than it sounds since sleep paralysis tends to occur in people who have a hard time developing healthy sleep habits in the first place. Plan your days so that you will be able to get to bed at the same time every night, weekdays and weekends, and get up at more or less the same time in the morning.
Optimize your sleep environment
A bedroom that is conducive to rest can make it easier for you to sleep. Keep the temperatures in your bedroom on the cool side, and use an air purifier if possible. Decorate your room with quiet tones and keep clutter to a minimum. Curtains that effectively block sunlight and noise are important if you need to sleep during the day or live in a noisy urban area. Choose a comfortable mattress that won’t cause back pain, along with pillows and sheets that are breathable and cool. Commit to sleeping without interruptions if at all possible. Don’t drink anything too close to bedtime so you can avoid a midnight bathroom break.
In addition, if you are a back sleeper by nature, try to train yourself away from this by turning on your side or stomach when you are going to sleep. Although more research needs to be done, there are indications that this exposed position leads to sleep paralysis. Try sleeping on your side with pillows behind your back to keep from rolling over.
If all else fails, consider therapy to help you relax and sleep better. It’s important to address any mental health issues you may have in order to lessen the possibility of sleep paralysis. Chronic anxiety or depression, PTSD, and other diagnoses all increase your risk of sleep paralysis. One promising type of therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. This type of therapeutic intervention has been proven to deal effectively with anxiety disorders, panic disorders, PTSD and more.
While many sleep paralysis cases may be treated without medical intervention, some instances can call for it—including patients with underlying conditions such as anxiety or depressive disorders, for example. If an underlying condition causes sleep paralysis, it may need to be treated first before the sleep paralysis can be resolved. Even in some situations without underlying conditions, a doctor may choose to prescribe an antidepressant to help with sleep if the sleep paralysis is severe enough.
Learning meditation and muscle relaxation techniques may help you to cope better with the experience. Affirmations, mindfulness exercises and self-talk therapy can be helpful when dealing with an episode of sleep paralysis and will have other lasting benefits as well.
Physical exercise is another way to reduce anxiety. Weight training and cardio work, if done more than two hours before you retire for the night, can help you relax and sleep with less chance of a paralysis event. Closer to bedtime, try some gentle stretches or yoga-like activities to relax your body without raising your heart rate.
Monitor Substance Use
Of course, it goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that it’s best to avoid caffeine too close to bedtime. The same holds for other stimulants such as tobacco and, surprisingly, alcohol. You might think a glass of wine would relax you and enable you to sleep better, but alcohol leads to disrupted rest time as your liver begins to metabolize the drink.
Studies also show that substance abuse leads to sleep disorders in general. If this is something you struggle with, getting the help you need to overcome your unhealthy practices should lead to a better quality of sleep with fewer disruptions of any kind.
Too Long, Didn’t Read?
Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, and if it becomes chronic, it can leave you feeling tired and not operating at your best during the daytime hours. Although there is much to learn about sleep paralysis, research has discovered ways to treat it that will leave you healthier and happier, whether it’s through therapy, guided meditation, or another tactic. We encourage you to try some of the methods outlined above to begin to take control of your sleep once again and regain your nights of quiet, uninterrupted slumber.