Many studies have shown that the more severe and protracted our experience of childhood trauma, the more likely we are to suffer from serious sleep problems in adult life, including nightmares, night terrors, sleep apnea and insomnia. Sleep difficulties are obviously extremely unpleasant on their own; however, to make matters even worse, studies have shown that impaired sleep is related to myriad mental, physical and emotional and behavioural problems. In this article, I will look specifically at a phenomenon known as ‘sleep paralysis.’
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Perhaps three or four dozen times in my life, a very unnerving thing has happened to me whilst in bed: I have awoken to find myself completely and utterly paralyzed. Mercifully, however, it never lasted for more than about a minute.
The first time it occurred, this transient quality, though, did not stop me worrying. Did I have a tumour pressing against my spine? Was it incipient Parkinson’s disease? Did I have some terrifying and irreversible brain disease? Would I be dead within a month?
Imagine my relief when I discovered from my doctor that this condition was, in fact, not all that uncommon and was, apart from the psychological distress it causes, completely harmless.
The condition is a type of parasomnia (a sleep disorder) that sometimes occurs when we wake directly from REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep – the stage of sleep in which we dream) and is called sleep paralysis; it is also frequently accompanied by night terrors/sleep terrors (a feeling of intense anxiety, sometimes involving an irrational fear that one is under the control of some dark, malevolent, evil, omnipotent force).
During REM sleep the brain stem blocks bodily movement in order to prevent us from physically acting out our dreams. Also, during REM sleep, the brain produces images (the visual content of our dreams).
Sometimes, when we wake up abruptly from REM sleep, these processes are still operating (i.e. they have not switched themselves off). This results in us being awake and yet unable to move or, indeed, to speak. And, because the brain may still also be producing images, we may, as if being paralyzed and rendered temporarily mute were not enough to contend with, have also to endure frightening hallucinations, for good measure
Most unpleasant, you will agree.
A Simple Cure:
Fortunately, however, this distressing state is short-lived – perhaps lasting a minute or less. Indeed, one can escape its grip by, if possible, initiating tiny bodily movements such as wiggling a toe, finger or, even, by just blinking.
Why Are Those Who Suffered Childhood Trauma At An Elevated Risk Of Experiencing Sleep Paralysis?
Because, as alluded to above, those of us who have experienced significant childhood trauma are more likely than the average person to suffer from sleep problems, it follows that we are, too, at an elevated risk of suffering from night terrors/sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is also sometimes referred to as hynagogic or predormital sleep paralysis.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).