Sleep Paralysis Explained By Dr. Priyanka Vaidya

Sleep paralysis is a condition in which a person is mentally conscious but physically unable to move. It is sometimes accompanied by hallucinations of frightening invaders in the bedroom. The result is a scary, almost nightmarish experience of sensing an intruder but being unable to respond. Thankfully, this is nothing more than the product of a half-awake brain. We sat down with our very own Dr Priyanka to get a more thorough understanding of sleep paralysis and why it happens.

What is sleep paralysis and why does it happen?

“To understand sleep paralysis, it is important to grasp an understanding of the stages of sleep we go through.

“Although we are asleep, our brain is constantly active as we go through five repeated stages of sleep every night. The first and second stage are the light sleep stages which you enter within a few minutes of hitting the sack. Your eye movements get slower and the brain produces alpha and theta waves. This can be equated to a meditative state whereby you still have some degree of alertness. Stages three and four are the beginning of deep sleep where the brain produces delta waves that prepare the body to enter more restorative sleep and eye movement and muscular activity ceases. The body engages in a clearing and repairing process, whereby tissues are repaired, growth occurs and the immune system is boosted.

“The final stage, and probably the most important one to understand sleep paralysis, is the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During this phase which typically happens 90 minutes after initially falling asleep and lasts for up to an hour, the eyes jerk quickly, the heart rate increases and breathing becomes fast and shallow. Your muscles are all paralysed while the brain works hard in processing memory and consolidating information. Most non-REM sleep occurs early in the night and the length of REM periods increases as the night goes on.

“People with sleep paralysis happen to wake up before the REM sleep is over and hence find themselves in a state where they are unable to move as their muscles are paralysed. This is temporary and lasts for a few seconds, but as you can imagine, the very fact of not being able to wake can be quite distressing when fully conscious.

“There are some sleep disorders as well as genetic factors that predispose individuals to sleep paralysis. However, any factor that can disrupt normal sleeping patterns, such as emotional trauma, anxiety and depression – all of which are all the more relevant in this current pandemic  – can lead to sleep paralysis.

Is the Covid-19 pandemic triggering sleep paralysis?

“According to a recent survey by King’s College London, more people are experiencing disturbed sleep and increased dream patterns around reports of the pandemic.

“Our understanding of how stress contributes to sleep paralysis is not as well researched as the role of how heightened emotions cause more dreams.  When it comes to dreams it has been postulated that we dream during our REM sleep so that the brain can process all of our emotions with the evolutionary aim of soothing and providing some form of emotional therapy.

“When it comes to sleep paralysis, it is possible that the heightened stress reduces our melatonin level, which is important for deep sleep, and instead releases cortisol which causes a sudden awakening well before the body has had time to adjust, leading to a short period of paralysis.

How do I tackle sleep paralysis?

“The key to mitigating sleep paralysis is improving sleep hygiene by sticking to a good bedtime routine. This includes avoiding blue light prior to sleep and ensuring the room temperature is kept low so that you get a better night’s rest.”

If you are struggling to get an appointment with your NHS GP, At Pall Mall Medical, we offer private appointments with GPs and Consultants via telephone and video call.

You can book an appointment by calling 03300 58 44 55.