Hallucinations and the inability to move create fear. But the condition, also called paralysis, is not dangerous and can be easily explained.
She was completely overtired when she went to bed in the evening. Stress and shift work had exhausted the operating room nurse, but her thoughts continued to circle into sleep. Suddenly the woman woke up again at night. She looked at the dark ceiling, wanted to turn around. But her arms and legs did not obey her. She couldn’t feel her breathe either. Panic. Was she paraplegic? Would she suffocate now?
The nurse saw a surgeon lean over her. Was she in the operating room? As a patient? The doctor lowered his scalpel and cut into her stomach. The pain felt terribly real. It took minutes for the woman to flex a finger with great willpower – and escape the sleep paralysis with her excruciating hallucinations.
Paralyzed in sleep
“Anyone who has experienced what is known as sleep paralysis reports conditions as we know them from the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe. It feels as if one is buried alive,” explains chief physician Professor Geert Mayer, head of the sleep center at the Hephata Clinic.
The disorder, which is popularly called witchcraft, is not uncommon: an estimated eight percent of the population have already experienced it, among students, according to surveys, even around 30 percent. Because stress and little sleep increase the risk. In addition, the brain seems to be more prone to unusual sleep phenomena at a young age. Observations on identical twins also show that genetic predisposition plays a role.
What happens in the head during such paralysis can probably be explained by a certain sleep phase: During the so-called REM phase (rapid eye movement) we dream, only the eye muscles are active. The nerve fibres, on the other hand, with which we control our movements when we are awake, are inhibited by the brain.
“That’s right. It protects us from living out our dreams in REM sleep,” says Professor Thomas Penzel from the Interdisciplinary Sleep Medicine Centre.
But if you come to consciousness during a REM phase, you can experience sleep paralysis, according to a scientific thesis. The part of the brain responsible for motor skills is still asleep, so to speak.
In addition: The different activation states of different areas of the brain, a so-called dissociation, can lead to hallucinations. This concerns what is seen and heard as well as the sensation of touch and pain.
More relaxed through education
Experiencing sleep paralysis can be so disturbing that people seek medical advice. “The most important thing then is to inform the patient that these are natural processes in the body,” says Penzel.
Those who make themselves aware that it will pass and that no supernatural powers are involved can remain more relaxed and hallucinate less strongly.
According to Penzel, some sufferers are very afraid that they will stop breathing or their heart will stop beating during sleep paralysis. “But I can take this fear away from them because breathing and heartbeat work automatically – even while we sleep and dream.” It can also help to avoid certain risk factors in order to prevent incidents.
Break the vicious circle
For patients who are very often overtaken by sleep paralysis and who suffer severely from it, Mayer gives a certain, low-dose antidepressant on a trial basis: “This suppresses REM sleep.”
The nightly horror experiences may also lead to an anxiety disorder – which in turn disturbs sleep. “Then psychotherapy can be appropriate,” says Mayer. This breaks the vicious circle of fear and paralysis.
Lower your risk
Sufferers can do these things to avoid sleep paralysis or to reduce its number:
Changing sleeping position: Researchers suspect that the paralysis is favoured by a supine position. Better to lie on your side or on your stomach in bed.
Pay attention to sleep hygiene: So if possible avoid everything that prevents regular waking and resting phases. Also, get enough sleep and drink little or no alcohol.
Staying Relaxed: Stress seems to promote sleep paralysis. In order to switch off better in the evening, meditation, yoga or fixed rituals may help.
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