Why did I stop being paralyzed?

Sleep Paralysis: Trapped in a Nightmare

She was completely overtired when she went to bed in the evening. Stress and shift work had exhausted the OR nurse, but her thoughts continued to circulate until she slept. 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 breathing 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 in Schwalmstadt-Treysa.

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 susceptible 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 fibers, on the other hand, with which we control our movements when we are awake, are inhibited by the brain.

When parts of the brain are asleep

"That's right. It protects us from living out our dreams in REM sleep," says Professor Thomas Penzel from the Interdisciplinary Sleep Medicine Center at the Charité in Berlin.

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 state of different brain areas, a so-called dissociation, can lead to hallucinations. These relate to what is seen and heard as well as 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.

Some people affected are very afraid that they will stop breathing or their heart will stop beating during sleep paralysis, says Penzel. "But I can take this fear away from them immediately because breathing and heartbeat work automatically - even while we sleep and dream." It can also help to avoid certain risk factors (see box) in order to prevent the 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 disrupts sleep. "Then psychotherapy can be appropriate," says Mayer. This breaks the vicious circle of fear and paralysis.

Lower risk

Sufferers can do these things to avoid sleep paralysis or to reduce its number:

Change sleeping positionResearchers suspect that the paralysis is promoted by a supine position. Better to lie on your side or on your stomach in bed.

Pay attention to sleep hygiene So avoid everything that prevents regular waking and resting phases as much as possible. Also, get enough sleep and drink little or no alcohol.

Stay 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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