Why are some people affected by sleep paralysis?
Why are some people affected by sleep paralysis? – Tess, age 13.
Falling asleep is a bit like flicking off a light switch. One moment we are awake, but then the switch is flicked and we fall asleep.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. But sometimes, the switch gets a bit “sticky” and the light flickers between being awake and asleep. This is what happens with sleep paralysis – when you wake up but feel like you can’t move.
To answer your question, you’re more likely to experience sleep paralysis if:
- someone in your family has it;
- you don’t get enough sleep or you have changed your regular sleep pattern
- you are a shift worker;
- it seems to be more common when you sleep on your back (but we don’t know why);
- you are stressed or taking certain medicines;
- you have a sleep disorder such as narcolepsy (which is where you fall asleep suddenly and uncontrollably when it’s not really sleep time, like in class).
Overall, though, there’s still a lot scientists don’t know about sleep paralysis and why some people are more prone to it than others.
Here’s a bit about what we do know.
Our brain is half asleep
In the olden days, some people called sleep paralysis the “Night Hag” and said it felt like a spooky witch or demon was sitting on your chest. Now we know it is quite a common sleep problem or what doctors call a parasomnia, caused by a little brain hiccup. And thankfully, it usually doesn’t last very long.
With sleep paralysis, some parts of your brain are awake and still active but other parts are fast asleep.
The sleeping part is the section of the brain that tells the muscles to relax while we sleep so we don’t act out our dreams. Evolution probably gave us that trick because acting out dreams can be harmful to yourself or others (although this trick doesn’t always work and some people do act out their dreams).
Sleep paralysis can feel pretty strange and scary, at least until you realise what is happening.
Sleep paralysis often doesn’t need treatment
If you are unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes when falling asleep or waking up, then it is likely that you have what doctors call “isolated recurrent sleep paralysis”.
If you sometimes experience sleep paralysis, here are some things you can try at home:
- make sure you get enough sleep
- try to reduce stress in your life, especially just before bedtime
- try a different sleeping position (especially if you sleep on your back)
Your doctor may ask about how you’re feeling, your health history and if your family has had sleep problems. They may tell you to go to a specialist sleep doctor who can investigate further.
Written by Danny Eckert, Director, Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health, Professor, College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University, Flinders University. Republished with permission of The Conversation.
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