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By Claudine Chamberlain
In the words of singer Sheryl Crow, its a bizarre and twisted feeling where you feel completely paralyzed. Thats 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. Its 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
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.
While 6 percent of the population may sound small, Dr. Michael Thorpy of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City says thats 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 doesnt 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 theyre scared to death, and if you add an hallucination, its even worse, he says. The very first thing to do (in treatment) is let them know its not going to kill them. Theyre not going crazy, theyre 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 whats 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.
S U M M A R Y|
New research looks at the prevalence and risk factors for sleep paralysis.