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What are Sleep Paralysis causes?

Updated on April 17, 2016

To understand the causes of sleep paralysis, it is first important to be aware of what sleep paralysis is. Countless people around the world have reported waking up, yet not being able to move their bodies. They describe a feeling or sensation that has been diagnosed as sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a condition of the body and brain where one gets stuck between stages of sleep and may become aware before the brain signals to the body to come out of paralytic state that occurs during dreaming.

Sleep Paralysis and Sleep Cycles

It is important to understand the cycles of sleep in order to get a full understanding of sleep paralysis causes. When we fall asleep our bodies and brains go through 4 stages of sleep. Three of the four states of sleep are non-REM and the final is the REM stage. These 4 stages make up a single sleep cycle. The stages include:

STAGE 1 in a Sleep Cycle, light slumber

Stage one is a 5 to 10 minute cycle when the eyes are closed and the sleeper is experiencing in a light slumber.

STAGE 2 in a Sleep Cycle

Stage two is when the sleeper has been in the light sleep cycle long enough for his or her heart rate to slow and the body temperature to drop. This is a preparation phase as the body is nearing the deep sleep state.

STAGE 3 in a Sleep Cycle, deep sleep state

Stage three is where they body falls into a deep sleep state. During this stage the sleeper is harder to awaken, and if sleep is disturbed, during this state the sleeper my feel foggy or confused.

These three states of NREM sleep are important to the body, as this is when they body sets about repairing and restoring the immune system, building strong healthy bones and developing or regrowing important tissue that one needs to stay healthy. As we get older, there is a change in the way that we sleep, which can have a significant impact on our overall health.

Studies show that though we need the same substantial amount of sleep that we enjoyed when we were younger as we age our sleep cycles begin to become shorter. This means our bodies aren’t afforded the same amount of deep sleep that allows our bodies to regenerate and heal at the same rate.

One might say that NREM sleep is for the body what REM sleep is for the mind. To better understand this we must investigate the last stage of a cycle of sleep, called REM. Though it takes the body around 90 minutes to cycle through stage one through stage three, the first cycle of REM sleep typically lasts only 10. Though the stage will increase as the night proceeds the REM stage usually does not exceed one hour.

STAGE 4, REM Sleep

Stage Four is REM sleep and is responsible for allowing the sleeper to experience intense dreams as this is when the brain is more active. In contrast, it is also when the brain triggers the body to become inactive or paralyzed so that the sleeper does not act out his or her dreams. It is in this state during sleep that we are most likely to experience sleep paralysis.

Dangers of Sleep Paralysis?

If you have experienced sleep paralysis you are fully aware how terrifying it can be. No matter how vivid and scary it is, most do not have cause to worry. Sleep paralysis generally doesn’t cause any serious symptoms outside of the initial fear that the SP may create. It is important to understand as much as can about sleep paralysis. The more knowledge we have the more unlikely we are to create any fear beyond the actual experience of it.

As a side note, there are a few ways that an individual may experience sleep paralysis. The first way is through the process of falling asleep and the other is during the process of awakening.

Sleep Paralysis causes

After gathering a variety of test subjects and asking them to recollect their personal sleep paralysis stories the U.S. National Library of Medicine reported that sleep paralysis was more prevalent in minority cultures than that of caucasian cultures. In addition, though the cause may not be entirely understood they were able to conclude that there were some contributing factors that could be identified. Things such as:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Travel
  • Changes in work Shifts
  • Late Night Studying

All of these factors were prevalent themes of many who had experienced sleep paralysis. Leading researchers to conclude that sleep related transitions can be like a petri dish for SP to thrive.

Another common thread among those who were studied show that other factors were also responsible for creating an SP experience. The causes were widely varied and included medical conditions such as:

But that is not all, further studies showed a connection between sleep apnea and certain medications. As you can see there are a multitude of contributors to sleep paralysis. In fact sleep paralysis can run in families; It can be hereditary.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

Now that we have identified some of the leading causes of sleep paralysis, lets spend a little time getting to now some of the symptoms. These symptoms though not life threatening is most cases, can certainly feel quite serious. Some of the more commonly reported symptoms include:

  • Being consciously aware during the REM sleep cycle
  • Sensations of being only partially awake
  • Awareness of the environment
  • Being stuck or unable to move (physical paralysis)
  • Intense feeling of being held down or suffocated
  • Intense fear
  • Feeling of an evil presence
  • Visions or hallucinations of otherworldly beings
  • Outer body experiences

In addition it is thought that age can be a factor in the experience of sleep paralysis. If you find that you are prone to sleep paralysis there are things you can do to help lesson the likely hood of experiencing them. The most important is making sure you get an ample amount of rest which may mean planning ahead and being prepared for adjustments that may necessary due to shifts in your normal sleep routine.


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