22 February 2011
An alarming 50 per cent of the population suffers from sleep paralysis. Our expert helps you identify the symptoms and explains the remedial action
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Also known as the Old Hag Syndrome, the condition manifests itself as heaviness in the chest when a person is dropping off to sleep or is just about to wake up (lying in the face-up position). The person feels paralysed and can't move or speak. It happens when the mind is awake but the body is still asleep.
Dr Ashit Sheth, head, Department of Psychiatry, Bombay Hospital, says that even though every culture has its own supernatural explanation associated with it, the condition is actually not harmful to the person who experiences it. "It is a state of motor paralysis, and not mental illness.
It happens during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. In this condition, the body is asleep but the mind is awake and conscious of the surroundings. If the victims get nightmares just as they are waking up, they get frightened and find it difficult to move or speak."
Patients experience some common symptoms, each one associated with its own myth. Steer clear of the faulty beliefs and learn to identify the syndrome for what it is.
In the paralysed state, the muscles are also asleep. As the person wakes up, only his mind is conscious. In such a condition, the respiratory muscles are also sleeping, leading to breathlessness. The victim feels like he is getting strangulated and experiences a heavy or tight chest.
If you feel a sinister presence in your room during an episode, you are hallucinating. Dr Sheth says this happens because you may have been having a nightmare just before you wake up and it stays with you.
People sometimes report feeling as if they are going insane. Hallucinations aggravate this sense. Experts insist that this phenomenon is completely physiological and not a mental illness.
Like many sleep disorders, this condition is also often caused by lifestyle.
Stress and alcohol comsumption
The urge to excel is clearly taking its toll in all spheres of life. Alcohol doesn't help relieve that stress but contributes to it. It is advisable to cut down on drinking if the Old Hag keeps bothering you.
A lot rests on your sleep pattern. Late nights and yo-yo sleeping habits can also affect your state of mind. Those working in the BPO sector or similar jobs are easily victims of this condition due to their irregular sleeping hours.
You hop across continents disturbing your bodily cycle and inviting sleep disorders. If you think you are suffering from sleep paralysis, try and avoid trans-meridian journeys.
Underlying medical conditions
Psychiatric conditions such as anxiety or bi-polar disorders and potassium disorder, caused by a deficiency of potassium, can also lead to sleep paralysis. In such a case, it is important to get a sleep study done. Sufferers must undergo a polysomnogram to rule out other problems. Those of them suffering from narcolepsy, sudden sleep for a few minutes at any time of day, cataplexy, loss of muscle tone causing a fall, or hipnogogic hallucination, waking up with a hallucination, are more at risk.
- When under sleep paralysis, try to move a finger because that one movement is enough to break out of the episode. The paralysis is not permanent unless it is accompanied by underlying medical conditions.
- Take a warm water bath before you hit the bed. It keeps the body warm and comfortable.
- Regular exercises and breathing can help you sleep well.
- Identify your comfort zones while sleeping. For instance, Krishna Puri, a sleep paralysis patient, never sleeps in a supine (face-up) position. Rishab, 23, feels comfortable with a sheet for cover.
- Dr Sheth says Modafinil (taken only after prior consultation with your doctor) can help against hallucination and narcolepsy.