A study explores the benefits of meditation-relaxation therapy for people with narcolepsy who experience sleep paralysis.
As the lead study authors explain, finding oneself mentally awake as the body’s voluntary muscles remain asleep can be a terrifying experience; sleep paralysis can bring with it a range of hypnagogic hallucinations.
“I know firsthand how terrifying sleep paralysis can be, having experienced it many times myself,” says first study author Baland Jalal, from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
“But for some people,” adds Jalal, “the fear that it can instill in them can be extremely unpleasant, and going to bed, which should be a relaxing experience, can become fraught with terror.”
Jalal’s research is a small-scale pilot study exploring the efficacy of meditation-relaxation therapy as a treatment for sleep paralysis in people with narcolepsy. This is a condition that sleep paralysis sometimes accompanies.
Meditation-relaxation therapy produced a 50% reduction in the number of days on which the study participants experienced sleep paralysis.
Normally, our voluntary muscles remain immobilized during sleep, leaving us free to dream of physical activities without injuring ourselves in reality.
Every 90 minutes or so, we move between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. During both stages, the body remains relaxed. The eyes move during REM, which is the state in which dreams occur.
When something interrupts REM and the body remains asleep, sleep paralysis can occur.
It is not clear exactly what causes sleep paralysis. According to Jalal and colleagues, it is associated with sleep disruption, which is a common side effect of narcolepsy, and is common in people with psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The hallucinations that accompany sleep paralysis fall broadly into three 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
As the new study points out, “Supernatural interpretations of [sleep paralysis] are found worldwide and often reflect the cultural background of the population in question.”
Because of this, many people have interpreted sleep paralysis as an abduction by aliens or a visit from ghosts or demons.
As part of meditation-relaxation therapy, the scientists suggest taking the following actions during a sleep paralysis event:
- 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
To conduct the study, Jalal collaborated with researchers from the Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences at the University of Bologna/IRCCS Istituto delle Scienze Neurologiche di Bologna in Italy.
The experiment involved 10 participants, 40% of whom were female. Their average age was 27.8 years. According to the researchers, all participants had narcolepsy, and all had experienced sleep paralysis at least four times in the previous month.
The participants kept daily journals tracking their sleep paralysis events — including their duration and the emotions they experienced each time — for a period of 4 weeks.
During this time, 66% of them reported experiencing sleep paralysis. It occurred most often as people were falling asleep (51% of the time) and less often (14% of the time) as they were waking up.
At the end of this period, the participants completed mood/anxiety questionnaires. The researchers also taught the participants meditation-relaxation techniques, which they practiced during wakefulness over the next 8 weeks. They did so twice per week for 15 minutes each time.
During the next 4 weeks, the participants experienced sleep paralysis 14 times over 11 days, on average. Their hallucinations were moderately severe (reported as 7.3 on a 10-point scale).
During the second month, the number of days on which sleep paralysis occurred dropped by 50% to 5.5. The total number of episodes dropped to 6.5. The disturbance it caused each time fell from a rating of 7.3 to 4.8.
A control group practiced deep breathing instead of meditation-relaxation. These people saw no improvement in sleep paralysis throughout the trial.
Jalal explains, “Although our study only involved a small number of patients, we can be cautiously optimistic of its success.” The researcher finds the improvement in both the frequency of sleep paralysis events and their intensity 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