Night fright: Why you shouldn’t fear sleep paralysis

This unnerving disorder is more common than you might think, so what causes an episode of sleep paralysis? And is there anything you can do to prevent it?

Ever been jolted awake by your alarm, or dropped off to sleep, only to find yourself suddenly unable to move your body?

That’s sleep paralysis, a condition where your body and brain fall out of sync when it comes to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

“It’s very disconcerting; and the first time it happens, people can get quite scared by it,” sleep specialist Dr Andrew Bradbeer says.

What does sleep paralysis feel like?

“Often, sleep paralysis is associated with a sense of fear and sometimes even a hallucination that there’s someone in the room,” Dr Bradbeer, of Manse Medical, says.

Fortunately, while this can be terrifying, it’s just your brain playing tricks on you.

Dr Bradbeer says it’s also fairly common for people experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis to feel as if they can’t breathe because of a sense of heaviness – or pressure – on their chest.

“And that’s scary because people sometimes feel like they’re going to die,” he adds.

Sleep paralysis usually only lasts seconds but, occasionally, it can stretch into minutes. Many people will only experience it once or twice in their lives – if at all.

So what exactly is sleep paralysis?

According to Dr Bradbeer, our muscles are naturally paralysed during the REM stages of sleep each night.

REM sleep generally takes up about 90 to 120 minutes of our total sleep per night and, on average, we go through three to five REM cycles, with each episode getting longer as the night progresses.

“Normally, we’re protected from the paralysis of REM sleep by other stages of sleep – we go through other stages of sleep and then, when we’re already asleep, we finally get into REM,” Dr Bradbeer explains.

However, if our internal body clock is disturbed – perhaps by jet lag, shiftwork or the teenage years – things can fall out of whack, and our body can be in the REM stage while our brain is awake.

Other risk factors for sleep paralysis

University of Western Australia Centre for Sleep Science director Dr Jen Walsh says sleep deprivation or irregular sleep are the most common causes of sleep paralysis.

“It can occur with another sleep disorder, narcolepsy, but that’s a really rare condition,” Dr Walsh says.

And some studies have suggested sleep paralysis may be more common in people with bipolar disorder or paranoia, or in those taking anxiety medication.

But, Dr Walsh says, most people who experience sleep paralysis won’t need to seek medical help.

When you should seek help for sleep paralysis

If you are experiencing sleep paralysis regularly, or it’s causing you anxiety, it’s definitely worth having it checked out, Dr Walsh says.

“Speak to a GP and get a referral to a sleep physician, just so the sleep physician can help work out if there’s another cause for it – whether it’s associated perhaps with narcolepsy or another sleep disorder,” Dr Walsh suggests.

She says generally, however, finding out more about the condition does help to ease any fears, and knowing that there isn’t some kind of sinister underlying reason for it, is enough to alleviate the concerns of most people.

What you can do to prevent sleep paralysis

Dr Bradbeer says good, regular sleep habits can help keep sleep paralysis at bay.

“The most important things to start with are those that are going to help you sleep consistently, and sleep well,” he says.

“That includes regular wake-up times, making sure that your bedroom environment is good for sleep, and that you’re not overstimulated before going to bed.”

Remember, try not to panic during sleep paralysis

Dr Walsh says it’s a shame sleep paralysis is not more widely talked about because it would alleviate our fear when it does happen for the first time.

Once people understand what’s going on, and that their brain is playing a trick on them, sleep paralysis becomes much less frightening, Dr Bradbeer adds.

“It will end, and you will be able to get to sleep, and you’re not unsafe when it’s going on,” Dr Bradbeer says.

Written by Larissa Ham.