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Waking Up to Terror
Sleep paralysis
Sleep Paralysis Leaves You Scared, Frozen

About a third of people with severe sleep paralysis say they hallucinate while they're frozen, sometimes picturing a shadowy figure looming over them. (Pam Veenstra/ABCNEWS.com)

By Claudine Chamberlain
In the words of singer Sheryl Crow, it’s “a bizarre and twisted feeling where you feel completely paralyzed.” That’s followed by terrible fear — a heart-pounding, sweaty feeling that you could die any second.
     The terror that Crow described in a 1996 interview with Rolling Stone magazine is known as “sleep paralysis.” It’s a state of being awake but completely frozen, unable to move or speak. It usually strikes just after waking up, but can also occur just before falling asleep.
     Crow described getting to the point “where you are sure you are going to die.” Other sufferers have nightmarish hallucinations. They see dark, hooded figures looming over them as they lie helpless in bed. Some women report feelings of being raped. Others see bright lights and swear they were abducted by aliens.

No Doctors, Please

ABCNEWS' George Strait reports on a simple way to snap out of sleep paralysis.
(download RealPlayer)
     Sleep experts have long known about sleep paralysis, but research in the latest issue of the medical journal Neurology offers them a better idea of how common it is and what the risk factors might be. According to a new study, roughly 6 percent of all people have had at least one episode of sleep paralysis, while slightly less than 1 percent have at least one episode a week.
     Sleep expert Dr. Maurice Ohayon and colleagues came up with those figures by asking 8,100 people in Germany and Italy about their sleep habits. Ohayon, a researcher the University of Montreal, says he would expect the prevalence rate to be about the same in other countries, too.
     Few people report the problem to a doctor. “Probably, the fears of being considered mentally ill are more powerful than the will to know what was happening,” he says.
     While some hallucinations may be powerful enough to trigger anxiety or depression, the study should reassure people who worry that their sleep paralysis indicates a brain tumor. Ohayon said that in most cases, sleep paralysis is not linked to neurological disease.

What’s Risky?
While 6 percent of the population may sound small, Dr. Michael Thorpy of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City says that’s fairly sizable for a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea, when breathing stops during sleep, occurs in only 4 percent of adult males. Narcolepsy registers a scant .05 percent.
     In addition to finding out how common sleep paralysis is, Ohayon discovered that the problem is about five times more likely to hit people taking anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax and Valium. People on these medications may want to try a different prescription as way of treating the sleep paralysis.
     For others, the problem is often tied to sleep deprivation, a consequence of being overtired. The study also found that sleep paralysis often appears as a secondary problem for people with sleep-robbing mental illnesses like severe anxiety and bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive psychosis.
     Sleep paralysis strikes during the transition between dreaming sleep — called REM sleep for its telltale rapid eye movements — and being fully awake. During REM sleep, experts say, your body keeps you safe from acting out on your dreams by temporarily paralyzing you.

The Truth is Out There
Sometimes, your brain doesn’t fully switch off those dreams — or the paralysis — when you wake up. That would explain the “frozen” feeling and hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis, says Dr. Max Hirshkowitz, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston.
     The effect lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but it feels like forever.
     “The biggest effect is they’re scared to death, and if you add an hallucination, it’s even worse,” he says. “The very first thing to do (in treatment) is let them know it’s not going to kill them. They’re not going crazy, they’re not going to be permanently paralyzed.”
     Hirshkowitz says he suspects that many people who claim to have been abducted by aliens were really just suffering from hallucinatory sleep paralysis, since the “alien” descriptions are so similar to what’s described by patients. In an era before Roswell and The X-Files, he says, people would have said they were being visited by spirits or dead ancestors.

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New research looks at the prevalence and risk factors for sleep paralysis.

Your body protects you from acting out your dreams by paralyzing you. Sometimes, the paralysis lingers after you wake up.

W E B  L I N K

Read the stories of people who've suffered sleep paralysis.

“There would be nights where I would be so afraid to go to sleep. … In sleep paralysis, sometimes you get to the point where you are sure you’re going to die.”

Sheryl Crow, in Rolling Stone magazine

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