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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Kong Teck Chuan and Dr Andre Budihardjo on December 6, 2022

Is Sleep Paralysis A Real Condition?

Have you ever woken up unable to speak or move your body? That's sleep paralysis. Here's why it happens and how to work through it.

Sleep paralysis min scaled

Sleep paralysis can feel otherworldly. It occurs when your body is both asleep and awake at the same time. During a sleep paralysis episode, you may wake up startled, open your eyes, and try to move your body but can’t.

You may also feel like you are suffocating or experience images flashing across your eyes. It’s easy to panic, but rest assured, sleep paralysis is a real medical condition.

Read on to learn more about what causes this mysterious condition and how to address the underlying issues so you can get better sleep at night.

What Is Sleep Paralysis And What Causes It?

A young man experiencing sleep paralysis or the beginning stages of sleep walking
During a sleep paralysis episode, you may be awake but unable to move or open your eyes.

Sleep paralysis is when you are waking up or falling asleep and cannot move or speak. During an episode, you may feel awake but you cannot open your eyes, move, or speak.

It may also feel like someone is in your room or something is pushing you down. These feelings can be frightening and last several minutes.

The exact cause of the condition is unclear, though researchers believe multiple factors play a role, such as:

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.”

TCM 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

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.

Anxiety and panic attacks

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.

How To Manage Sleep Paralysis

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. 

Improve your sleep hygiene

A young woman exercising outdoors
Exercise can help calm the mind, reduce anxiety, and help you sleep at night.

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 

Try cognitive behavioral therapy 

A short and structured approach may be helpful for insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I) comprises six to eight sessions. Each of these involves cognitive, behavioral, 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 behavior 

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) 

Use herbal ingredients 

The combination of Heart and Kidney Deficiencies, or Heart Blood and Spleen Qi Deficiencies, relates to sleep disorders. Valerian root (Xie Cao) 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) or passionflower (Xi Fan Lian).
  • Consuming a tonic formulated with vinegar, spine date seed (Suan Zao Ren) and walnut membrane can improve sleep quality by calming your mind and body.
  • If you also have indigestion, use hawthorn (Shan Zha) or an aromatic digestive like cardamom (Sha Ren).

You can also take an herbal sleep supplement at night to help calm the mind, relieve anxiety, and improve insomnia.

Additionally, Lingzhi has been shown to calm the nervous system to promote relaxation and reduce stress, which can also help you sleep better.

Stimulate acupressure points

Activating the Bai Hui (DU20), Shen Men (HT7), Nei Guan (PC6) and San Yin Jiao (SP6) 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.”

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 jeopardizing your health.

We love a good story. Share your craziest sleep paralysis experience with us in the comments below.

References

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

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