Is sleep paralysis dangerous?

Monday June 22 2020

Sleep paralysis is not life-threatening, but it can cause anxiety. If it happens often, please visit your doctor for a general checkup to rule out underlying medical conditions. PHOTO | SHUTTER STOCK

Turinawe was in high school when she first experienced sleep paralysis.

“I would be awake, but I could not move, breathe, or say anything. You feel like you are dying,” she explains the episodes which would last between seconds and a few minutes and occur at least once a week.

There is an age-old myth that Bukalabanda (spirits), would attack boarding schools at night and terrorise students. Some, it is believed, would abduct their victims.

Turinawe says, learners would seek safety in numbers by putting beds close together. “Maybe it helped…because I do not remember suffering sleep paralysis then,” Turinawe says.

“During the episodes, I would see human shadows through the dormitory windows which would frighten me. I thought they were the Bukalabanda,” Turinawe remembers.

But with hindsight, she thinks, “Maybe they were real shadows of passers-by, or simply imaginations.” Science calls those imaginations hallucinations.


Even in her 20s, Turinawe still faces these disturbing experiences. “The last was a month ago,” she says, adding however, that they are no longer as frequent and terrifying.

At risk
A 2011 review of studies done over five decades, which was published by the PubMed Central, shows that about 7.6 per cent of the world’s population experiences at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lifetime with higher rates among students, people of African descent and psychiatric patients, particularly those with post-traumatic stress or panic disorder.

The review describes sleep paralysis as a state characterised by a discrete period during which voluntary muscle movement is inhibited, yet ocular (optical) and respiratory movements are intact.

Such episodes can occur when falling asleep or waking up, especially when one sleeps on their back.

Dr Catherine Abbo, a psychiatrist at Makerere University School of Health Science, says the condition, which is common in adolescents, is associated with lack of sleep, changing sleep patterns, travel fatigue, stress, medication such as stimulants, drug abuse and family history, among others.

Sleep hygiene
Science has no specific treatment for sleep paralysis, but Dr Abbo recommends practicing proper sleep hygiene.

“That is, having a specific time to sleep and wake up,” she says.

Dr Abbo also encourages relaxing one’s mind and body before sleep. “Maybe by praying, reading novels, taking warm baths. But avoid vigourous exercise in the last three hours before bedtime.”

She also discourages alcohol use, drug abuse, phones and tv screens towards your time for sleeping.

“It is also not a good idea to sleep on a full stomach,” she says, recommending sleep-enhancing foods such as bananas or a glass of warm milk.

Dr Abbo also recommends sleeping on one’s side, as opposed to the supine position or against the back.

Advanced assessment
If the above measures fail, Dr Abbo recommends proper assessment of the problem. “If medication is the problem, we could advise you to substitute it or stop it altogether,” she says. “If it’s anxiety disorder, depression, we treat it accordingly.”

That advanced diagnosis, she says, also helps reveal whether one’s persistent condition is a symptom of a bigger problem such as epilepsy or narcolepsy, a chronic, neurological disorder that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness, causing fragmented night sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness, according to Medical News Today, a web-based outlet for medical news.

What they say

Charles Furaha, "From what I have read, sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to talk or turn when sleeping. Although it normally happens for a short period of time, it is scary. I wouldn’t want it to happen to me."

Elizabeth Ainembabazi, "I think it comes when you suddenly change sleep positions. For example, a sudden change from sleeping on your back to sleeping on the stomach. To reduce occurence, it is good to have good sleep behaviour."

Alfonsine Kabalisa, "I think using some medications and stress can lead to sleep paralysis. Every time my friend went to sleep extremely sad or stressed, she would suffer episodes at night. Yoga sometimes helped her to relax."

Whenever Turinawe faced paralysis during sleep, “I would fight, telling myself that I’m moving.”

But according to a YouTube video, people are advised against trying to panic because it may lead to negative thoughts, which just worsens the situation.

Also do not try to escape; try to move or open your eyes, because this might expose you to more scary images.

Unlike the muscles in your legs and other parts of the body, your lungs are not paralysed. Your breathing, however, responds to fear, and that means, it takes a lot of focus and effort to concentrate on measured breathing.

However, doing so will ease the pressure on your chest, and it will help control the fear you feel, negating that sensory image of terror to the brain. In doing this, you also control your heart rate, which then calms the rest of your body. These efforts can quickly get things back in order and allow you to snap into full wakefulness.

The bottom line
Sleep paralysis can be terrifying, and it affects millions of people across the planet on a regular basis. It can turn into a vicious cycle, causing anxiety and resulting from anxiety.
It is essential to take steps to better understand any underlying causes of your experiences with sleep paralysis so you know how to deal with it.

Sometimes, it is necessary to get medical treatment for other conditions that lead to these frightening episodes, while other times, you merely have to employ some meditation tactics and use a few aids to get you through.

Make sure you have a regular sleep pattern and do not deviate if at all possible. Try breathing techniques to get you through when you do have sleep paralysis rather than fighting the feeling.

Fighting makes it worse, and breathing reminds the body that you are not completely paralysed. Controlling that breathing helps the brain process that you are awake, so you can more easily snap out of the state.

Talk to a medical professional about your condition and your symptoms if you think you have sleep paralysis problems so you can work to get a better, uninterrupted sleep.

And most of all, know that you are not alone and that others suffer as well. This might help you better process the whole experience.
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