Disclaimer: This article is not meant and should not be treated as a professional medical advice. The idea behind writing this is to create awareness about a lesser known and often misunderstood disorder. These are just my inputs and how I deal with it on a personal level.
Have you ever felt suffocated during your sleep? Or experienced a dreadful feeling of someone sitting on your chest and trying to choke you? Or an intruder in the room whom you either cannot see or you can see a shadow presence which is causing severe levels of fear but you are neither able to move nor shout out. The shout is stuck in your throat and all you manage is a muffled sound. You can swear it isn’t a dream because you can see your bedroom and something or someone else is in it who should not be.
If you have experienced any of this, you might have been through an episode of sleep paralysis. No there are no demons and your house is not haunted. And no you have not been possessed by an evil spirit. It is a sleeping disorder.
Samuel Johnson coined the term “nightmare” for sleep paralysis and it has been researched extensively for many years.
Let’s start with a simple understanding of how our brain functions when we sleep. A regular sleeper goes from alert sleep to REM which is short for Rapid Eye Movement. REM sleep is the deep sleep when we dream. If you observe a sleeper during this phase, you will notice their eyes moving back and forth at a regular rhythm, hence the name.
During this phase the brain shuts down body movements and ability to talk. This is to stop us from acting out our dreams. Imagine you are running in your dream and start doing that physically! It sounds funny but may cause us injury. When this control is lost, we have issues like sleep walking. Some people do talk in their sleep but it is generally uncommon.
The other factor is our basic survival instinct. It kicks in or is present in our psyche to save us from life threatening situations. In most scenarios, this instinct is only an alert for us to become aware and avoid getting into a risky situation. But at times it is strong enough for us to experience fear and get out of a situation that could cause bodily harm.
These two functions – survival instinct and stoppage of body movement – combine together during sleep paralysis and hence the fear seems so real. The feeling of an evil presence is triggered because our brain signals the survival instinct very strongly. Our REM phase of sleep and wakefulness overlap and cause the brain to send out confused signals. So we don’t understand whether what we see is a nightmare or an actual life-threatening situation. The overlap makes us see our own house in our sleep and creates the illusion of being awake.
The best way to take care of this disorder is to have good sleeping habits. This basic need has become a challenge in our urban lifestyles. But this is the very first step towards better health. A continuous sleep of 7 hours is recommended for the body to recover and rewind.
Stress management helps to tackle a great many issues. It aids in getting a peaceful sleep at night and takes care of various sleep disorders.
Try to sleep on your side rather than your back if you are facing multiple episodes of feeling choked in the sleep. Consult a doctor you trust and let them recommend a specialist, if needed.
Sometimes, all we need is a patient listening ear and a shoulder to lean on. It takes care of quite a few troubles. And simple as it may sound, this is exactly what most of us lack these days.
Take up a hobby or follow an interest which takes you away from the routine. Take a mini vacation and distract yourself. When I am feeling particularly stressed out, I don’t immediately go to bed. I may watch funny videos, or read a funny or romantic book, or even just play some relaxing game like Solitaire on my phone. The idea is to stop us from thinking of matters which make us frown and switch to thoughts which make us smile and feel happy.
These are just minor things that we can include as “me time” and every person deserves that break. Don’t feel guilty about a little indulgence.
Even if you do get another episode of sleep paralysis, the best part is now you know what is exactly happening to you. Just tell your brain that it isn’t real and try to wake up.
Usually when I have any of these episodes, I make sure that I am not going back to sleep alone. Pester your family members – parents, siblings or spouse. Make sure someone is with you in case you face a recurrence. They may be able to wake you up sooner if they notice something odd.
In my case, this seems to have been triggered due to many years of working in shifts. But it has only happened 4 times in the last 4 years. In case you have been facing this more frequently, it is best to get medical advice.
This Wikipedia link below may help shed more light on this misunderstood but scary disorder.
- Shweta Iyer
- October 5, 2016
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