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Wake up and find you can’t move, breathe, or cry for help..?

A few years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night. I was in my bed on my back, my eyes were open a slit, and I couldn’t feel myself breathing. Try as I might, I couldn’t move or really do anything for that matter, except for coming to the conclusion that I was dying. I lost consciousness, and somehow woke up the next day.

A few months later, I had gone to bed early, and woke up not long after having fallen asleep, and again in the same situation. I couldn’t move, didn’t think I was breathing, and this time, there was also loud ringing in my ears. It got louder and louder, and then I again lost consciousness, but woke up soon after, completely fine, although a little worried about what might be happening to me.

As it turns out, I suffer from Sleep Paralysis. I found this out after a little searching for the symptoms I was going through.

So what is Sleep Paralysis? Let’s start with a little information about what happens when the normal person sleeps. Everyone goes through sleep stages, with the deepest stage of sleep being REM sleep, which is the stage where a person dreams. Now in REM sleep, to keep someone from actually acting out their dreams, the brain releases an amino acid called glycine while in that stage of sleep. This amino acid inhibits the motoneurons, effectively paralyzing the body.

Normally, as soon as a person wakes up, the brain immediately stops releasing this amino acid, and the person wakes to full control of their body. Unfortunately, for some people such as myself, when awaking while entering or exiting the REM sleep stage, the brain for whatever reason does not stop releasing this amino acid, and the person becomes conscious, but is still paralyzed. As you would expect, it can be a frightening experience.

Since becoming aware of this, the few times it does happen, I really pay it no attention and simply fall back asleep. For those who suffer from it, and wish to keep it from happening, here are a few tips I’ve come across:

  • Don’t sleep on your back – this seems to increase the chances of it happening. For myself, it only happens when sleeping on my back.
  • Try to move a part of your body – concentrate on one part of your body and try to move it. Sometimes you will successful in ‘breaking’ the paralysis.
  • Concentrate on a sound – if there is a radio playing or a clock ticking in the background, concentrate on it.
  • Don’t worry – it’s really just a different experience. You’re not going to die, so just think about other things. Maybe start planning out your day. Eventually you will either fall back asleep, or your brain will catch on and will stop inhibiting your motoneurons, giving you the ability to move again.

Remember, as far as part of your brain is concerned, you’re still asleep, and it’s just doing it’s job to make sure you don’t flail about. Things that would normally wake you up (someone touching you, a noise, etc), will break you from this paralysis. Other than that, you really should be asleep right now anyway, so just let things be and think about it again in the morning.

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