Sleep Paralysis: A Health Condition or Paranormal Incident?

It’s easy to associate sleep paralysis with the supernatural. It begs the question: is it an otherworldly experience or a treatable health condition?

Motion blur close-up of a woman’s right eye as she looks up 

Startled, your eyes open wide. You try and lift yourself off the bed, but you can’t. At that very moment, images flash across your eyes. You also feel as if you’re suffocating. These may seem like the signs of a supernatural incident but they’re not. On the contrary, these are the symptoms of sleep paralysis. 

The condition involves you being awake and asleep at the same time. Understandably, you feel distressed during sleep paralysis episodes. Read on to learn why they happen and how to clock in restful hours during your nocturnal slumber. 

Causes of Sleep Paralysis

Feeling like you're awake and asleep simultaneously and can't breathe sometimes? You could be experiencing sleep paralysis.
Feeling like you’re awake and asleep simultaneously and can’t breathe sometimes? You could be experiencing sleep paralysis.

The exact cause of the condition is unclear, though researchers believe multiple factors have a translucent (see what we did there?) hand in provoking sleep paralysis.

Insomnia

Researchers at the University of Pittsburg developed the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) to measure global sleep quality. The test consists of seven primary components: 

  • Sleep quality 
  • Sleep duration 
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Use of sleep medication 
  • Daytime dysfunction (an inability to stay awake or alert during a waking period) 
  • Habitual sleep efficiency (the percentage of time spent asleep in bed) 
  • Sleep latency (the amount of time required to fall asleep after turning off the lights) 

Researchers tried to predict sleep paralysis using insomnia symptoms and indicators from the PSQI index. They discovered that the PSQI is more effective in predicting the occurrence of sleep paralysis.

In a separate study, people experiencing insomnia five or more times a month were found to have a higher risk of sleep paralysis.

Woman sitting up in bed with closed eyes and her right hand covering her right eye
Frequent insomnia can make a person vulnerable to sleep paralysis.

Anxiety and panic 

The latter provokes an onset of the former, stimulating the body and putting it under stress. Hyperstimulation prevents you from entering the deeper stages of sleep.

An example of this is chronic stress elevating consciousness levels during the rapid eye movement (REM) stages of sleep. It’ll make you aware that sleep paralysis is happening but restrict movement until after the body wakes.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Feeling unsafe or struggling to focus and interact with others are notable symptoms of PTSD. Severe trauma will also see you processing your experience during sleep. Consequently, it’ll lead to disorders like sleep paralysis and night terrors.

Body constitution imbalances 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) associates the condition’s onset with the Heart, which governs shen (spirit). “A disruption of qi (vital life force) flow or yin and yang (passive and active energies), respectively and imbalances in the various organ systems can trigger sleep paralysis,” explains Eu Yan Sang Physician Kong Teck Chuan.

In addition, phlegm and turbidity – murky and impurified substances that can accumulate to form Dampness – may contribute to more frequent episodes. Examples of turbidity are cloudy urine, loose stools, or a greasy tongue coating. 

How Do You Ensure You Sleep Soundly Through the Night? 

Sleep paralysis is common. Hence, put the notion that you’re crazy or being haunted by a spiritual being to rest. Instead, focus on improving sleep quality and correcting internal imbalances to avoid recurring episodes. 

Aim for better sleep hygiene

Your bedroom setting and daily habits can impact whether you have good or poor sleep. A few ways to ensure restful sleep include: 

  • Exercising regularly 
  • Removing electronic devices from the bedroom 
  • Going to sleep and waking up at the same time daily 
  • Limiting your food, alcohol, or caffeine consumption before bedtime  
  • Making sure that the bedroom environment is dark, quiet, and relaxing 
Woman closing the curtains in a bedroom at night
Blackout curtains that block light can improve sleep quality.

Sign up for cognitive behavioural therapy 

A short and structured approach may be helpful for insomnia. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-I) comprises six to eight sessions. Each of these involves cognitive, behavioural, and educational components, such as: 

  • Interventions that try and change presumptions about sleep 
  • Activities that help establish healthy sleeping practices 
  • Circulation of information on the connection between thought, actions, and sleep behaviour 

Relaxation techniques, too, will be taught during CBT-I. Examples of these are:  

  • Progressive muscle relaxation  
  • Breathing exercises (help calm anger, anxiety, and depression) 
  • Hypnosis (teaches verbal and non-verbal relaxation cues)  
  • Biofeedback (allows for better control over breathing, heart rate, temperature, and brain waves) 
  • Meditation (combines focused attention and movement in practices like yoga and tai chi to relieve anxiety and stress) 
  • Autogenic training (enables you to focus on different parts of the body and sensations like heaviness, warmth, and relaxation) 

Make use of herbal ingredients 

The combination of Heart and Kidney Deficiencies, or Heart Blood and Spleen Qi Deficiencies, relate to sleep disorders. Valerian root (xie cao, 缬草) can remedy these imbalances.

Severe symptoms like restlessness and vivid dreams stem from Liver Fire or Heart Phlegm-Fire. It’s advisable to address them with lavender (xun yi cao, 薰衣草) or passionflower (xi fan lian, 西番莲). Consuming a tonic formulated with vinegar, spine date seed (suan zao ren, 酸枣仁) and walnut membrane can improve sleep quality by calming your mind and body. If you also have indigestion, use hawthorn (shan zha, 山楂) or an aromatic digestive like cardamom (sha ren, 砂仁).

Stimulate acupressure points

Activating the bai hui (DU20, 百会), shen men (HT7, 神门), nei guan (PC6 , 内关) and san yin jiao (SP6, 三阴交) points can also help you do away with sleep paralysis.

“Press on the acupressure points on the left side of the body before moving to the right. Do this for up to two minutes. You can also massage the Liver meridian along the inner thigh. It’ll help improve Liver qi flow and induce a calming effect on the body,” says Physician Kong.

It’s established that sleep paralysis isn’t a paranormal experience but a clinical condition. Taking steps to fix its underlying causes can go a long way in getting good sleep nightly. If you wish to use herbal ingredients, speak to a licensed practitioner. Doing so will allow you to regulate your body constitution without jeopardising your health.

References

  1. National Health Service. Sleep paralysis. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  2. National Library of Medicine. 2012. Global sleep quality as a moderator of alcohol consumption and consequences in college students. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  3. 3. National Library of Medicine. 2018. Relationships between sleep paralysis and sleep quality: current insights. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  4. National Health Service. Panic disorder. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022
  5. Anxietycentre. 2022. Can anxiety cause sleep paralysis? [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  6. Connections Wellness Group. 2019. The Link Between PTSD and Sleep. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep and Sleep Disorders – Tips for Better Sleep. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  8. SLEEP FOUNDATION. 2022. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]
  9. Naturopathic Doctor & News Review. RESTING THE SHEN: REFININF TREATMENT OF SLEEP DISTRUBANCE USING TCM. [online] [Accessed 9 August 2022]

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