Just imagine: on a given night, you wake up and you can’t move your body, your muscles are stiff and no matter how hard you try to get up you have no control over your movements. In addition to despair, you start to hallucinate and are still totally paralyzed. Terrifying, isn’t it?
Initially associated with the presence of evil beings, science currently seeks to explain this disorder, known as sleep paralysis. Find out what this problem is, how it happens, what the symptoms are, treatments, plus chilling stories from people who have experienced it.
What is sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis is a disorder that usually occurs shortly after waking up or falling asleep, in the phase that doctors call REM (rapid eye movement), when the most real dreams occur. In this phase, the eyes move quickly and brain activity is similar to when the body is awake.
During sleep, the brain relaxes the body’s muscles and holds them still to conserve energy. Paralysis is characterized by the disruption of communication between the brain and the body, which prevents the body from reacting instantly.
Although the affected individual cannot move, he or she can hear normally and even, in some cases, make sounds. Difficulty moving can be accompanied by visual, sensory or auditory hallucinations.
Psychologist Fernanda Alban emphasizes the importance of knowing the symptoms of this sleep disorder, so that we can recognize it and then seek the necessary help.
Symptoms and signs
It is a remarkable event that can last from one to two minutes, depending on the case. Symptoms can vary greatly between individuals, and Fernanda points out that this disorder is easy to identify.
- Visual hallucinations: sensation of the presence of some being, objects or light. Hallucinations generate an intense feeling of anxiety, says Fernanda, and may even cause insomnia after the episode.
- Sound hallucinations: This can be any type of noise, such as footsteps or slamming doors, vibrations and whispers.
- Kinesthetic hallucinations: In some cases, the affected individual may experience the sensation of falling or floating.
- Breathing difficulties: Along with a feeling of pressure on the chest and choking, the individual experiences difficulty breathing. These symptoms cause great anguish and panic.
- Being consciously awake: It is possible that the person remembers the details of the sleep paralysis event, but cannot distinguish between what was real and what was a dream.
Fernanda explains that the body is not completely paralyzed during the episode: the eye and respiratory muscles remain active, which is why they cause these symptoms and signs.
What causes sleep paralysis?
According to the psychologist, most people who suffer from sleep paralysis are linked to intense physical and emotional fatigue, as well as other factors:
- Few hours of sleep;
- Inadequate food;
- Sedentary lifestyle;
- Lack of sleep routine;
- Excessive medication or hallucinogenic substances;
- Having a fragile mental condition;
Of course, in some specific cases, the person may not have these conditions and paralysis still occurs. Fernanda’s tip is to try to maintain a balanced life and reduce the factors that cause stress.
What to do if you have sleep paralysis
Despair often takes over. But calm down: some initiatives can help when the episode is happening and minimize the bad effects.
- Understand that it is fleeting: the first point to not feel distressed is to have the notion that it is not something dangerous or deadly. Fear is common, but it is important to have a mind that will not have any physical consequences.
- Try to move your body: even if you are completely paralyzed, you may be able to move some extremities, such as your toes, fingers, tongue and, in some cases, your eyes. If not, try the next tip.
- Imagine that you are moving: don’t dwell on the thought that your body is paralyzed. Imagining that you are moving can induce your stimuli to return to normal.
- Control your breathing: As the level of anxiety increases, it is normal to have uncontrolled breathing. Focus on your breathing and try to stabilize it, keeping a slow, deep rhythm.
Breathing is the main secret, says Fernanda. When we learn to control it, we start to live with less anxiety and more balance. It indicates that if the person has difficulty regulating breathing, he can train, out of the state of paralysis, to inhale slowly and deeply, releasing the air through the mouth.
When does sleep paralysis occur?
When we sleep, our brain activates a defense mechanism, preventing us from moving. This mechanism works in the period before or after the body enters or leaves the sleep state. Therefore, paralysis can occur in two moments: at the beginning of sleep or upon awakening.
Sleep onset: it usually occurs just before the body completely enters sleep and we have maximum muscle relaxation, causing the body to lose its mobility. At this stage, the brain activities that produce dreams begin and, therefore, they can be mistaken for visions.
Upon awakening: when we try to wake up, we are in REM sleep, in which our muscles are immobile and our body is relaxed. This period is also favorable for sleep paralysis, as we are trying to regain consciousness, but the body has not yet awakened.
According to the psychologist, people prone to having this sleep disorder should organize themselves to sleep better, avoiding moments of stress or bad thoughts before bed.
Treatments can start with behavior, to seek professional intervention with medications or therapies. Fernanda indicates that a complete follow-up with more than one professional can be more effective, as they will act in the investigation of all the factors.
One of the main recommendations is that the person has the ideal amount of sleep, which for adults corresponds to 7 to 8 hours a day. A healthy diet and physical exercise can also help a lot, says Fernanda. People who already suffer from depression and anxiety should indispensably look for a professional so that medication is indicated, if necessary.
There is also the option of natural and alternative treatments, such as hypnosis. As scary as it sounds, sleep paralysis can be treated simply, and small changes in habits can make all the difference.
According to Revista Pesquisa da FAPESP, about 8% of the population suffers from sleep paralysis, most of whom are psychiatric patients and students. We invite three people who suffer or have suffered from this sleep disorder to share their experiences.
- Marcelino Roberto de Oliveira, 34 years old, civil servant on leave: I don’t remember when it started, they don’t have a specific period. Sometimes they happen next to each other, other times they go months without happening. Before I thought it was just a bad dream, nothing more. Researching, I discovered the world of PS. My paralysis follows a pattern, a schedule. Usually at dawn, after 3 am, I’m lying down and the figure of a demon appears, which is in the room, standing next to the bed, very close to my body. I pretend I’m sleeping to try to trick him and see if he goes away, when he doesn’t, I try to move to wake up and scare him. I try to move in every way, but my body is inert, it seems glued to the bed, after a few minutes trying I return to normal, let’s say I wake up. At first I would wake up scared, but once I started researching this world of sleep paralysis, I don’t care anymore.
- Rayza Menezes, 28 years old, student: my first PS I remember was when I was a child. I thought it was normal, until the day I shared it with colleagues and discovered that not all people went through this. Since the first experience, I have been through countless paralysis. Usually when I’m tired but struggling with sleep, that’s when PS sets in. It happens suddenly, I don’t feel my body, I just feel control in my breathing and eyes. I’ve never seen anything definite, but I see shadows of hooded people and I hear a lot of voices. Known and unknown voices, and even other languages I don’t know. I’ve heard it as if they were in a train station, or the most common, conversations in restaurants. I can even hear the clatter of cutlery on plates clearly. Before I panicked, the feeling of not being able to move any part of my body is horrible and I was desperate. But over time, I got used to it, calming down and knowing that it was temporary. That’s when I had new and unexpected experiences: getting out of the body.
- Laura Sousa Batista, 33 years old, housewife: PS happened to me when I was seven months pregnant with my youngest child. I was lying down and fell asleep. At one point, I was on my back and I looked at my bedroom door and saw a black shadow with a female silhouette that approached me. One hand she placed on my neck and the other placed on my belly, and then she started squeezing, both my belly and my neck. At that time I was terrified! I was worried about the baby, and also because I was short of breath. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t, I wanted to move, but it was useless. I could only move my eyes. Then, in my mind, I remember I started to say a prayer, and that set me free. I was very scared and feeling stomach pains, real pains! I ran to my oldest son’s room in a panic and crying, he calmed me down and I didn’t want to sleep that night anymore. It was a horrible experience, very realistic! What I didn’t understand and found intriguing was that I felt the pains where the “thing” had tightened. It was scary!
These testimonials help us understand how complex this disorder is and how it can be different for each person. If something similar has happened to you, don’t despair. Seek the help you need and get in touch with others who have gone through this. Telling about your experiences and letting off steam can also help to control fear, says Fernanda. And remember: take a deep breath!
The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only. They do not replace the advice and follow-up of doctors, nutritionists, psychologists, physical education professionals and other specialists.
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