Hi Valerie—

You’re paralyzed! And it doesn’t feel too good, does it?

(We can all think of better ways to wake up in the morning…)

Before you get nervous about a demon of your past haunting you, though, it will help if we review some basics of sleep physiology.

Each night when we dream, our bodies actually do become paralyzed. Commands for movement that are generated during REM, or dreaming sleep, are intercepted at the top of our spinal cords in an area of the brain stem called the pyramidal tract. The reason this occurs is so that we don’t move during REM. Otherwise, we would all get out of bed—and start acting out our dreams!

Paralysis during REM functions as a safety feature—so that we each don’t go wandering around in the middle of the night during our REM sleep periods. It also functions to ensure that REM is accomplished efficiently—without a lot of arousals that would interfere with the accomplishment of REM itself.

Usually everything works OK. We are only paralysed when we are asleep, and then boom!—as soon as we wake up—the paralysis is over, and we immediately can move again.

It’s not a perfect system, though, and occasionally our brains and bodies wake up out of synch. In fact, most of us have experienced sleep paralysis (also known as REM paralysis) at one time or another. Usually it happens when we are especially tired. If we are low on sleep, our bodies will try to “keep us” in REM, as it were, until the needed amount is achieved.

The solution for this problem is simple. Take the paralysis as a sign that you are low on sleep, and make some extra time in your schedule to catch up.

Sleep paralysis also is associated with a sleep disorder called Narcolepsy. If you’re tired all the time no matter how much you sleep, and if you frequently have vivid dreams during mid-day naps, you should visit the Narcolepsy Network’s FAQ page, which lists most of the common symptoms. If you think their description matches your experience, make an appointment with a sleep doctor in your area. Narcolepsy is rare, but it

As for those nagging intruders hovering over your bed when you can’t move? As you know, they aren’t real. They’re just the products of a REM-activated imagination, at a time when you feel especially vulnerable.

Remember, you’re partly awake and partly asleep when you’re paralyzed—so take everything you “see” —with a grain of salt! often is undiagnosed. Most people suffer with the tiredness for much longer than they need to.

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