What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a rare but well-known phenomenon and describes the condition in which we wake up paralyzed from sleep at night. But what exactly happens during sleep paralysis and what causes our mind to wake up while the body is still asleep?

Table of Contents

      1. What is sleep paralysis?
      2. How does sleep paralysis develop?
      3. Causes & triggers of sleep paralysis
      4. Is sleep paralysis dangerous?
      5. Help & Tips
      6. Conclusion

      1. What is sleep paralysis?

      Sleep paralysis is a less common sleep disorder, also referred to as rigid sleep or sleep paralysis, which usually occurs immediately after falling asleep or shortly before waking up. It describes a paralysis-like condition associated with a partial loss of muscle control. Sufferers then suddenly wake up from sleep but, despite being fully conscious, are briefly unable to control their muscles and move, speak or otherwise react. The uncomfortable inability to move is also often accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations and feelings of anxiety or shortness of breath. Sleep paralysis can last from a few seconds to a few minutes and is usually an uncomfortable but harmless phenomenon. According to surveys, up to 30% of people have experienced being startled awake at night and lying wide awake but rigid in bed with nightmarish hallucinations.

      2. How does sleep paralysis develop?

      Sleep paralysis disrupts the transition between sleep and wakefulness, which is particularly likely to happen towards the end of a sleep cycle. Our brain is particularly active during the REM sleep phases that are then taking place - we dream and process important information and experiences. In order to protect us from uncontrolled movements and injuries during vivid dreaming, our brain blocks the transmission of muscle commands during this time and puts our body in a temporary "rigidity". Sleep paralysis itself is actually a harmless and natural protective mechanism of our body, which occurs every night for a certain time and usually goes unnoticed.

      smartsleep Schlafmagazin: Schlafphasen und Wachphasen im Verlauf eines Schlafzyklus

      But if we experience sleep paralysis, we wake up in the transition between dream sleep and the waking state exactly when our body is actually still asleep and the brain is still dreaming. In this mixed state of being awake and REM sleep, we consciously perceive the unusual inability to move and experience dream-like hallucinations. Then all we can do is wait until we wake up fully and can move again.

      3. Causes and triggers of sleep paralysis

      What exactly can lead us to an incorrect or are torn from the natural sleep structure and wake up at an inappropriate time is not yet known. However, researchers suspect that some factors can promote the occurrence of sleep paralysis. These include narcolepsy, stress, also known as "sleeping sickness", a disturbed or irregular sleep-wake cycle, mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders or depression or even sleeping on your back.

      4. Is sleep paralysis dangerous?

      Don't worry! Although it feels extremely uncomfortable and frightening, a one-time occurrence of sleep paralysis is usually harmless. Muscular paralysis occurs naturally and resolves quickly when we wake up fully or fall asleep again. And the frequently described shortness of breath, feelings of pressure or palpitations should not worry you either, because breathing and heartbeat continue to be regulated automatically.

      If such an experience occurs more frequently or if you have a serious illness, you should get to the bottom of the exact cause. Because a disturbed sleep structure and frequent awakening also prevent adequate regeneration at night and damage our health and the quality of our sleep in the long term.

      5. Help & tips against sleep paralysis

      smartsleep Schlafmagazin: Das passiert bei einer Schlafparalyse

      Waking up with scary visions, palpitations, or shortness of breath and not being able to move is a quick way for most people to become afraid or panic. During sleep paralysis we are also unable to call for help or draw attention to ourselves, which can be very frightening and uncomfortable. So how should we behave when we wake up paralyzed at night and what can we do to prevent ourselves from getting into the horrible situation of sleep paralysis in the first place?

      During sleep paralysis: keep calm

      The most important thing while experiencing sleep paralysis is to remain calm and understand why your body is not reacting the way it is used to at the moment. The best thing to do is try to focus on calm breathing and remember that you are in a natural body state and will be able to move freely again in a few moments.

      Preventive: Good sleep hygiene & regular sleep rhythm

      So that your sleep is optimal and the change between the important sleep phases is not disturbed, in addition to healthy sleep hygiene, you should of course pay particular attention to a regular sleep-wake rhythm and a sufficient amount of sleep overall. You can find tips on this here in the sleep magazine. Try to reduce stress and avoid caffeine and alcohol, especially in the evening. Scientists have also found that avoiding lying on your back and sleeping on your side or stomach if possible can also help.

      6. Conclusion

      • Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder in which sufferers wake up from sleep and experience a paralysis-like state with dream-like hallucinations.
      • In sleep paralysis, the transition between REM sleep (dream sleep) and wakefulness is disrupted.
      • Possible causes of sleep paralysis are an irregular sleep-wake cycle, stress, mental disorders or sleep disorders such as narcolepsy.
      • Good sleep hygiene and a regular sleep rhythm help prevent sleep paralysis and promote healthy sleep.

      Greetings and see you soon!

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