“I lie awake in bed….panic smothers me as I try and move.
I know I’m not alone, but I can’t talk. My breath becomes more urgent as I try unsuccessfully to move. There’s an axe coming through the bedroom door. Everything is pressing down on me, and despite trying to do anything I’m powerless.” Is this sleep paralysis?
This may sound like a scene from a horror movie, but it’s an account of an experience of sleep paralysis. This is a tortuous condition where one wakes up in the night. Unable to move, often experiencing terrifying or strange hallucinations.
Sleep paralysis is more common than you might think.
These episodes tend to occur early in the night or towards the end, as you are waking up. And they’re more common than you might imagine. It’s important to remember that it’s normal for your muscles to be paralysed at certain times when you’re asleep.
During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep our muscles are completely paralysed – everything apart from the eyes and respiratory system. It is assumed that this paralysis mechanism is in place to stop us acting out our dreams, based on rare cases where the paralysis fails – and people physically act out the contents of their dreams. Unfortunately, this paralysis sometimes occurs when the mechanism that causes your muscles to relax during sleep temporarily persists after you’ve woken up.
There are three general categories that tend to manifest
- Intruder hallucinations – a presence within the room
- Pressure on the chest / suffocation
- Floating sensations (usually above the bed)
These events tend to occur when the brain’s ability to regulate a normal sleep-wake cycle becomes disrupted. It’s particularly found as a result of post traumatic stress disorder, and within people suffering high levels of anxiety. However, many people suffer from sleep paralysis without any apparent psychiatric or neurological condition. Stressful life events, anxiety, and sleep quality all have an impact. And as you would imagine, people who experience disrupted and irregular sleep, such as shift workers, are at a higher risk.
Are there any treatments to help with this condition?
In very severe cases anti-depressants are prescribed, however ongoing research suggests maintaining a healthy, regular sleep pattern as a good approach. So going to bed at roughly the same time each night and getting up in the morning may improve symptoms.
It may well be a terrifying ordeal to go through, but for those who do its important to remember that they are temporary and harmless events. So, if you are experiencing a sleep disorder then it is important that you visit your GP who will be able to provide you with a diagnosis and advice as well as being able to rule out any serious underlying medical conditions. At this stage your doctor may then recommend or refer specialist treatment and services, one of which may be hypnotherapy.
Many sleep disorders are fuelled and worsened by stress and anxiety, issues which can be effectively resolved with the use of hypnotherapy. Usually it is not a situation itself which causes stress but the way in which we react to it. By inducing a state of deep relaxation in an individual a hypnotherapist will be able to gain access to the unconscious mind so that negative thought patterns and reactions to a particular situation can be turned into more positive ones.