Have you found your body shake when you are falling asleep? Have you ever had the unsettling experience of waking up in the middle of the night and finding that you are unable to move? Has this elicited feelings of fear and panic? Let’s take a closer look at what this is, why it happens and how to deal with it without panicking.
First, why your body shakes when you nearly fall asleep?
Neurologists explained when we start to enter the “Slow wave sleep” stage, we experience a separation between brains and muscles so that we won’t move when we dream. So it’s a normal situation that most of us would experience and it’s just like a disconnection performed in our bodies. It doesn’t imply that we have any hidden diseases.
Before we wake up, our minds and muscles will reconnect so it’s also common for us to shake before we wake up.
Some people would experience an exceptional case where the disconnection occurs earlier than the brain actually falling asleep completely. Then they would panic as they’re conscious but can’t move our bodies. This is called sleep paralysis.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis (SP) may be described as a period of time during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet you can see, breath and sense as in a waking state. SP can occur when you fall asleep or when you are about to wake up. A characteristic of SP is vivid hallucinations. These can be frightening experiences that have been interpreted and explained as, for example, the results of witchcraft, malevolent spirits and extra-terrestrial visitations.
How does sleep paralysis happen?
Deep sleep or REM sleep is at times suppressed; this can occur for a variety of reasons such as anxiety, trauma, jetlag, unusual sleep patterns or alcohol. When REM sleep is suppressed instead of occurring at the beginning of the night it takes place at the end of the night and this can elicit strange occurrences.
During REM we experience vivid dreams and, during this period of sleep the body is put into a state of complete paralysis. This is believed to prevent us from performing our dreams and is a completely normal occurrence. Sometimes, however, things don’t go according to plan and you can wake up during the REM period while your body is still paralyzed.
Who suffers from sleep paralysis?
Around 8% of the general population, 28% of students and 32% of psychiatric patients have experienced SP at least once, according to various studies. The reason that SP occurs at a higher rate in psychiatric patients and students is somewhat unclear but it is thought that it may be because both groups experience regular sleep disturbances; an occurrence that makes SP more likely.
SP has been linked with conditions such as narcolepsy, hypertension and seizure disorders, but it is also associated with sleep disturbances, a general lack of sleep, jet lag and shift work.
Why some people see strange things during sleep paralysis?
SP experiences can be very frightening. Cheyne et al. discovered that 90% of a student sample and 98% of a web-based sample said that they felt fear. Clinically significant levels of fear were found in 69% of a psychiatric sample taken by Sharpless et al. These high levels of fear sharply contrast the fear felt by people when they experience regular dreams. During normal dreaming fear occurs 30% of the time.
Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University and author of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives says: “I had one patient who was lying in bed and woke up to see a little vampire girl with blood coming out of her mouth,” he continues by saying “This is an example of a really vivid, multi-sensory hallucination. She could feel this vampire figure grabbing onto her arms, pulling her, and saying she was going to drag her to hell and do all these terrible things to her.”
Anxiety levels are high when people experience SP. Sharpless explains: “You have this vague sense that there’s something in the room with you.” Often people have the unnerving feeling that someone is watching them.
The brain is confused and urgently tries to make sense of the different signals it is getting. It uses cultural beliefs and memories and applies them to the situation of SP. Baland Jalal, a neuroscientist at the University of California says “Adding original features, scenarios or stories to try and make sense of what you’re experiencing is a very human thing to do”. He explains that “this is why people see ghosts, demons, aliens or even figments from their past appearing to attack them.”
The fear that comes with SP is not only derived from the fact that one feels paralyzed but also from the hallucinatory content that accompanies the paralysis. Unnatural involuntary movements, the presence of malevolent intruders and psychical or sexual assaults are frequently experienced during an SP episode.
How to avoid sleep paralysis
Psychologists offer some suggestions that may help deal with SP. These tips include trying to establish a more regular sleep cycle and not sleeping on your back or stomach. “People are statistically less likely to have it, if they sleep on their side,” Sharpless says. “We think there’s something about the extra weight when we’re in a supine position that makes it more likely.”
Next time you experience SP try to remember why it is happening. Thinking about the physical reasons for this phenomena may help you manage your SP experience better and stop you from becoming too frightened by it.