I experienced my first sleep paralysis episode when I was about 14 years old. It was a frightening experience. My whole body was vibrating and I couldn’t move my limbs or make an audible sound from my mouth.
The only thing I could remember vividly was a strange but lucid dream I fell into. It was as if I was reliving some past event or experience, only that I was not fully awake.
Sleep paralysis is something most of us have experienced but do not know the name for. Shortly after, I went back to sleep again, only to have a repeat episode of the same experience. It was already around 4 am, so I probably thought I wouldn’t need to sleep back again.
If you have ever experienced sleep paralysis, you will know how distressing it can be. In this post, we will talk more about what sleep paralysis is and how to prevent it from occurring.
Sleep paralysis is a diverse sleep problem characterized by temporary paralysis of body muscles and total or partial loss of control of voluntary actions, described as feeling semi-conscious during sleep but unable to move your body or speak. It is sometimes associated with lucid dreams about events, past experiences, or people, some of which may appear scary.
Sleep paralysis is not a mental disorder in itself but it may be associated with other sleep disorders like insomnia, dyssomnia, or parasomnias. It has been described as a form of demonic oppression across several cultures, an experience of seeing one’s body projected into open space or the ceiling, or a feeling of chest tightness that may impair how the victim breathes during sleep.
With all the different descriptions across the world, there is no doubt that sleep paralysis exists and that it can be significantly distressing.
On the prevalence of sleep paralysis, Moss, a sleep expert has described it as a fairly common experience most people would have at least once in their lifetime. While statistics differ between researchers and place of study, it has been estimated that 8% of people will experience sleep paralysis at some point in life.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
The cause of sleep paralysis is not exactly known but it is believed to be due to a disturbance in the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. There is increased brain activity during REM sleep; sleep is deeper and more satisfying.
Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep which makes up three stages in the sleep cycle normally transitions into the REM stage during sleep, and these two cycles back and forth every 90-100 minutes until you wake up. Sleep paralysis occurs when there is a dysfunction at the beginning of REM sleep or the end of REM when transitioning into another NREM stage or during awakening.
Some specific causes of sleep paralysis include the following:
Disrupted sleep schedules
Substances e.g caffeine/stimulants
Psychiatric conditions like anxiety and panic disorders
Generally, anything that affects your sleep cycle can predispose you to sleep paralysis. Just before looking at how to prevent sleep paralysis and get good sleep, let’s see some of the effects of sleep paralysis.
Effects of Sleep Paralysis
As harmless as sleep paralysis could be, some of its effects are far-reaching. Sleep paralysis can cause significant distress when one is trying to sleep, as one does not want to fall asleep again to experience that state of powerlessness, resulting in poor sleep quality and quantity.
Those who do not have a proper explanation of what sleep paralysis is or what causes it might attribute it to being oppressed by demons which can further worsen the distress and lack of sleep.
Poor night sleep can result in daytime sleepiness/narcolepsy, poor memory, anxiety and apprehension, growth problems in growing children or adolescents, and fear or phobic disorders.
How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis
After several years of experiencing sleep paralysis intermittently, I found ways to prevent it from occurring, prevent it from recurring it has already occurred.
Like most other sleep conditions, the prevention and control of sleep paralysis can be broadly classified into non-pharmacological and pharmacological. Non-pharmacological methods refer to interventions to modify the sleep environment or sleeping conditions, while pharmacological involve the use of medications, as follows;
1. Sleep at the right time
A simple description of how sleep paralysis occurs is when your body is still sleeping but your brain is fully active. Subjecting your brain to enormous stress and mental activity can predispose you to sleep paralysis, especially when that makes you sleep late at night.
The brain controls the sleep-wake cycle by releasing melatonin at nighttime. Delaying sleep for any reason can alter the sleep-wake cycle, such that when you want to sleep, your brain might still be very alert and active.
Sleeping at the right time also entails not sleeping too early. When you sleep too early, you might wake up early at midnight, and it might become difficult to go back to sleep without experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis.
2. Stop all mental processes
Complete your required tasks before you sleep, or at least, stop thinking about them when you lay on your bed. Whenever you engage your brain in mental tasks when trying to sleep, it stimulates it to continue its activity even when you want to sleep.
Avoid other distractions and keep your mobile phone at a distance, or sleep on a bed not close to a door or window leading to the outside. That way, you limit noise or other things your brain can think about or the subconscious fear of being close to the outside.
3. Limit the use of caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant that when taken at night keeps you awake longer than you would without any help. It is naturally found in coffee and cola and is mostly used by night-shift workers and students who desire to stay awake at night.
Caffeine can alter your sleep cycle and predispose you to have sleep paralysis later in the same way not sleeping at the right time would.
4. Listen to calming music
This is my preferred method of preventing sleep paralysis anytime I am going to bed at an awkward time. I have found myself sleeping very late at night, sometimes around 3 am without experiencing sleep paralysis simply by listening to calming music.
Without this, I experience that same vibration and lucid dreams I described at the beginning of this post most of the time. So how does it work?
Playing soft calming music via your earphones or directly from your music player speaker distracts your brain from complex mental tasks and prevents your mind from wandering to and fro while trying to enter the REM phase of sleep.
Most of the time, you don’t need to focus too much on the music as your brain naturally picks it up by itself. These soothing sounds hitting your eardrums can tame your brain back into sleep and quiescence.
5. See your doctor
You should see your doctor if none of the above interventions works in preventing your sleep paralysis. Your doctor will prescribe sleep medications after a thorough evaluation, which can help restore your sleep cycle and prevent an occurrence of sleep paralysis.
This is for the pharmacological method of preventing sleep paralysis. Generally, benzodiazepines and Z-drugs (Zolpidem, Zaleplon, and Zopictone) used in treating sleep problems like insomnia can also be used to prevent sleep paralysis via their action in restoring the normal sleep cycle.
Also, your doctor will help identify any underlying condition predisposing you to poor sleep quality or quality, which can in turn predispose you to sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a diverse sleep problem characterized by temporary paralysis of muscles of the body and total or partial loss of control of voluntary actions, described as a feeling of being semi-conscious during sleep but unable to move your body or speak.
The straightforward answer to this question is "No, you cannot die from sleep paralysis". While this answer may be unsatisfactory to you, particularly if you have a fixed opinion that sleep paralysis can cause death, a careful understanding of what causes sleep paralysis will make it clearer for you.
Sleep paralysis is only a minor dysregulation of the sleep cycle. There is no associated structural or functional damage to the brain or your body.
Sleep paralysis can affect the quality of one's sleep and can cause significant distress to someone who does not know much about it, but you cannot die from it because as already mentioned, it is because there is no disease, structural or functional damage to your brain or your body.
I am a medical doctor, a seasoned writer and passionate blogger. Thanks to many years of trials, failure, and near successes. I am the founder of Knowseeker and our content are geared towards enlightening and making you a better and happier audience.