New therapy may ‘dramatically’ minimize events of sleep paralysis

A research discusses the effects of meditation-relaxation therapy for people who suffer sleep deprivation with narcolepsy.

Meditation-relaxation therapy may help people who experience sleep paralysis.
Meditation-relaxation therapy may help people who experience sleep paralysis.

A new study in the journal Frontiers in Neurology reports that sleep paralysis is experienced by around 20 per cent of people worldwide.

As the authors of the lead study explain, finding yourself mentally awake as the body’s voluntary muscles stay asleep can be a terrifying experience; sleep paralysis can bring a range of hypnagogic hallucinations with it.

“I know firsthand how terrifying sleep paralysis can be, having experienced it myself many times,” says the first author of the study, Baland Jalal, from the University of Cambridge in UK.

“But it can be extremely unpleasant for some people,” continues Jalal, “the fear that it can instill in them, and going to bed, which should be a relaxing experience, can become fraught with terror.”

Jalal ‘s research is a small-scale pilot study which explores the effectiveness of meditation-relaxation therapy as a sleep paralysis treatment in people with narcolepsy. It is a disorder often caused by sleep paralysis.

Meditation-relaxation therapy decreased the amount of days on which the research participants suffered sleep deprivation by 50 per cent.

Sleep paralysis

The voluntary muscles usually remain immobilised during sleep, leaving us free to dream about physical exercise without potentially hurting ourselves.

We move between fast eye movement (REM ) sleep and non-REM sleep every 90 minutes, or so. The body remains calm in both levels. During REM, the eyes switch and is the state in which dreams take place.

Sleep paralysis may occur when something interrupts REM and the body stays asleep.

What exactly causes sleep paralysis is unclear. It’s associated with sleep disruption, which is a common side effect of narcolepsy, according to Jalal and colleagues, and is common in people with psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

The hallucinations following sleep paralysis fall into three broad categories:

  • a dangerous intruder or ominous presence nearby
  • difficulty breathing, perhaps due to an imagined assault
  • vestibular-motor sensations, such as falling, flying, or leaving the body

“Supernatural interpretations of [sleep paralysis] are found worldwide and often reflect the cultural background of the population in question,” the new study points out.

Despite of this, a number of people perceived sleep paralysis as an alien abduction or a visit from ghosts or demons.

Meditation-relaxation therapy

The scientists suggest taking the following actions during a sleep paralysis event as part of the meditation-relaxation therapy:

  • reappraising the meaning of the attack — that is, reminding oneself that what is occurring is non-dangerous, temporary, and common, and that any perceived hallucinations are nothing more than a continuation of dreaming
  • distancing oneself emotionally and psychologically — that is, reassuring oneself that there is no reason for fear, and that fear and worry may only extend the experience
  • trying inward-focused-attention meditation — that is, shifting one’s focus to a positive topic such as a happy memory
  • relaxing the muscles — that is, consciously trying to relax one’s muscles without attempting movement or making an effort to deliberately control breathing

The study

At the University of Bologna / IRCCS Istituto delle Scienze Neurologiche di Bologna , Italy, Jalal collaborated with researchers from the Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences to conduct the study.

The experiment included 10 people, of which 40 percent were women. The average age of these was 27.8 years. Both participants had narcolepsy, according to the study, and all had suffered sleep deprivation at least four times in the preceding month.

The participants kept daily journals tracking their sleep paralysis events — including their duration and the emotions they encountered each time — for a period of 4 weeks.

66 per cent of them reported experiencing paralysis of sleep during this period. This happened more often when people fell asleep (51 per cent of the time) and less often (14 per cent of the time) when they woke up.

The participants completed questionnaires on mood / anxiety at the end of this time. The researchers also taught meditation-relaxation techniques to the participants which they practiced during wakefulness over the next eight weeks. They have done so for 15 minutes each time twice a week.

The participants experienced, on average, sleep paralysis 14 times over 11 days during the next 4 weeks. They had moderately severe hallucinations (reported as 7.3 on a 10-point scale).

The number of days on which sleep paralysis occurred fell to 5.5 by 50 per cent during the second month. The episodes total dropped to 6.5. The disruption that it created each time declined from a 7.3 to 4.8 ranking.

Instead of meditation-relaxation a control group performed deep breathing. Throughout the study these people didn’t see any change in sleep paralysis.

Jalal states, “While our study involves only a small number of patients, we can be cautiously optimistic of its success.” The researcher finds the increase in both the frequency and severity of sleep paralysis events encouraging:

“Meditation-relaxation therapy led to a dramatic fall in the number of times [people] experienced sleep paralysis, and when they did [experience it], they tended to find the notoriously terrorizing hallucinations less disturbing. Experiencing less of something as disturbing as sleep paralysis is a step in the right direction.”

– Baland Jalal

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