Sleep Paralysis

I was having lunch with a friend and colleague one day, and like many interactions I’ll get asked a personal question about… Sleep!

She told me she had been recently having problems with Sleep Paralysis. SayWhat??? Imagine that you awaken from a peaceful slumber, then in your transition to wake, you know you are awake, but your body cannot move. You cannot move a finger, nor even wiggle a toe. And with complete sensations of a full paralysis not even your vocal cord muscles can function for a cry for help. This is often accompanied by a terrifying fear of panicked palpations to your racing heart.

Have you ever been awake, you know you are awake, but your body can't move, as if you are paralyzed.

Have you ever been awake, you know you are awake, but your body can’t move, as if you are paralyzed.

I paused for a moment, having had Sleep Paralysis episodes myself I completely understand the fear and terror of the unknown. I slightly chuckled, and when I did she could tell I had something to say about it, and she leaned forward with interest and suspense. I then proceeded to reply, “The best advice I can give you is to… EMBRACE it.”

I then sat there with a smile. I saw her shoulders pop back as she sat up straight in surprise. Equally I noted she had one eyebrow higher than the other and a wrinkle to her nose as she wore the the facial expression of confusion. “That was not the answer that I was expecting.” She replied.

Let Me Explain…
Sleep Paralysis is more common than people realize. I’ve had this conversation many times before, with friends, with patients, and online people have asked this question on my Paradise Sleep website. And to completely understand this phenomenon, one has to understand some basics of sleep science. With just a little understanding about REM sleep, the most paralyzing and fearful experience a person can have can instead be calmed, or better yet, turned into amusement park type of fun.

REM Cycles
Just as a washing machine has different cycles to clean our clothes, so to does our sleep have different cycles. A washing machine generally starts with a long, deep soak. This is followed by several active rinse-and-spin cycles. Viewing sleep with an analogy of washing machine cycles, we can simplify sleep into two cycles that refresh our brain and body. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and Non-REM sleep.

REM is our Dream Sleep, it is commonly mistaken as our deep sleep, when in fact it is a very active brain process. REM sleep is like the active rinse-and-spin, occurring every 90 minutes, and each REM cycle gets longer in duration with the longest occurring in the early morning (why some remember dreams when the alarm sounds).

There are 4 essential components to understand about REM sleep when it comes to understanding (and overcoming) Sleep Paralysis. (1) In REM we dream. (2) Dreams are associated with emotions. (3) Dreams are associated with emotions. (4) Heart rate flucations occur in REM.

Just like a washing machine has cycles, our sleep has cycles.

Just like a washing machine has cycles, our sleep has cycles.

Our REM sleep control area lays in our brainstem, and it has connections to several areas within our brain and nervous system.

One, in REM we are consolidating memories. We are taking today’s information and storing them into our hippocampus (our memory area). That is why when someone dreams, you may have a dream of a person you haven’t seen in 10 years, or a place you were just in a day ago.

Second, when we dream our body is paralyzed. People are often startled to hear this, but this is a good thing. Paralysis during REM is protective as it keeps us from acting out our dreams. (Sleepwalking, sleep talking, and night terrors are all a different topic for a different day). My 6 year old son doesn’t dream he’s at a computer at work, nor does he dream he’s paying attention with his hand raised in class. Rather he dreams of playgrounds and Pokemon images battling, and because of the paralysis of REM his body remains paralyzed in safety, otherwise he would jump out of his bed and crack his head.

Third, Dreams are associated with emotions. Our REM areas have connections to our Limbic System (our part of the brain that process emotions). This is why you may wake up from a dream with a smile and note how fun or pleasant the dream was. Or conversely how you may wake up from a dream in agony of an event that happened, or in anger having had a dream about a person you may have had a fight with.

Fourth and lastly, in our REM sleep we have autonomic (or heart rate) fluctuations. In REM sleep we have more blood flow to our muscles and organs for body repair (another good reason for REM paralysis). It is common in REM to have periods of tachycardia (fast heart rate) and even blood pressure spikes.

Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis.
So now let’s break down what goes wrong in Sleep Paralysis, and how to make it right. Most people who experience Sleep Paralysis do such upon early morning awakenings, which makes sense because we discussed that REM sleep occurs more in the second half of the night (why you may remember a dream when the alarm goes off). Sleep Paralysis occurs when you awaken from REM, and the REM control area in your brainstem is still causing inhibition to the motor pathways to your spinal cord (paralysis). That’s what Sleep Paralysis is.

Why Is It So Scary?!?
Remember in REM, we have connections to our Limbic System (our emotional area). Sooo… One, it is normal to have emotions, and fear is an emotion that comes with these events. Secondly, if you have no idea what is going on, fear is the emotion that will occur. They don’t teach this sleep science in school, so most people have no idea what is going on… fear is the subsequent response. Further, fear is a strong emotion, and the stronger the emotion the more feedback your Limbic System gives back to the REM control areas. So the more you are afraid, the stronger the paralysis.

Why Does My Heart Race During SP?
In REM sleep there are normal autonomic (heart rate) fluctuations. It is normal to have tachycardia (fast heart rate) during REM. Further, fear triggers even more tachycardia! And this may lead to hyperventilation (rapid and shallow breaths). And when your body has the paralysis, and your heart is racing, and you This further may lead to the sensation of heavy feelings on your chest. For centuries people have described Sleep Paralysis with a sensation of somebody holding them down or sitting on their chest.

Hallucinations can occur during Sleep Paralysis. Why? Because Sleep Paralysis is essential an aborted dream, or an extension of your dream state as you awake. So it’s not psychosis, but rather a dream while you are awake. And the images can be vivid. When you are scared, you aren’t gonna be thinking about fluffy unicorns jumping over cotton candy bushes. Rather you are going to see your greatest fears. Which is why people describe seeing distorted demon like images.

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, 1781

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, 1781

Legend over centuries is the myth of Incubus. Incubus is a demon that lies upon sleepers. Essentially Incubus is the REM while awake, the Sleep Paralysis and Hypnopompic Hallucination (image you see while awakening). The other thing about Incubus is that it is said to lie upon female sleepers, and engages sexual activity. Say What??? Easy now, this can be explained through sleep science as well. Remember the 4th important point about REM, there are autonomic fluctuations and increased blood flow to the body. This increased blood flow goes to our organs as well, such as our sexual organs. Women may have clitoral engorgement and males can have erections in REM (explaining why males mis the toilet so much first thing in the morning).

This explains why many women when they experience Sleep Paralysis report they feel they have been violated. And not understanding the sleep science leads to more fear… leading to more Sleep Paralysis.

What Can I Do To Stop It?
(1) Understand it.
(2) Breath…

There was a night when I was asleep, and I heard the absolute most horrible blood curdling scream come from my son’s room. The fear that something was wrong with my son gave me feelings of terror, I tried to get up… but was paralyzed. Then it occurred to me that I was dreaming. As a sleep specialist I see children with concerns for Night Terrors, and I merely said to myself, I see so many night terrors in clinic that I’m just dreaming that my son is having one. I then started seeing other types of dream like images, that confirmed I was dreaming, and used my breathing techniques to get back to sleep.

Just Breath!
Emotions are real. And you can’t always control the intensity of an emotion… but you can control your breathing! In fear, one’s breathing rate becomes rapid and shallow, leading to hyperventilation and tachycardia. Find your pulse rate somewhere in your body, and make a conscious effort to make your breathing slower and more silent. The technique that I use is Awareness of Breath.

How Can Any Of This Be Fun?
Why did I recommend to “embrace” Sleep Paralysis? (1) If you fear Sleep Paralysis, it will last longer, the images will be more scary, and you’ll lose sleep over it. And I’ve seen many people with chronic insomnia because of a fear of SP occurring. (2) Second, Sleep Paralysis is a portal into your dream world. Staying calm through Sleep Paralysis may help you get back to sleep. And potentially when you get back to sleep, you can explore your dream world into the world of Lucid Dreams. Imagine that you can identify when you are dreaming, fly in your dreams, change your dreams… it is possible! Anyone who can experience Sleep Paralysis can entrain themselves over time to Lucid Dream!

More About Lucid Dreaming:

I’ve seen people in the Sleep Paralysis community get mad at people in the Lucid Dream community. On an online forum one person commented how it is not cool for people who suffer from Sleep Paralysis to be hearing how others can have fun with it. I assure you it is nobody’s intention to have fun from other people’s suffering. My intent in this article is to (1) let people know that Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis is more common than people realize, and (2) just to discuss the sleep science so they fear it less.

Also, it is important to distinguish the difference between Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis from those who have Sleep Paralysis because they suffer from Narcolepsy. As the Lorax For Silent Disorders, my heart and efforts goes to those who suffer from illness but “look well”.

Finally, it is important to distinguish Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis from symptoms of PTSD.

One Response to “Sleep Paralysis”

  1. Wilson

    Well, it is a interesting article. But there is something imprecise. Many times the fear happens before to get paralyzed. It feels something strange in the environment before the paralysis.
    For me, the breathing technique sadly doesn´t work, because after a paralysis I get one after another. Buy I have learned to move slowly until I can recover my complete movement.



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