Sleep Paralysis – What causes it? Is it related to PTSD or demons?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Sleep paralysis.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Is Sleep Paralysis related to PTSD or the supernatural?

Imagine awakening suddenly in the middle of the night. Sitting on your chest is a demon; there are ghosts, dead people or spirits standing around your bed. You try to scream but nothing comes from your throat. You would run if you could but your legs won’t work. You are awake and paralyzed. Looking up at the demons you are helpless to do anything beyond saying a silent prayer inside your head. You are experiencing Sleep Paralysis.

Sleep Paralysis is one of those unusual problems. This condition is especially terrifying to someone who has the disorder.  If you have a belief in the supernatural you may dread falling asleep.

Sleep Paralysis has long been more the province of legends and the supernatural than included in the area of mental health. This experience has been connected to many other worldly phenomena. Similar experiences were described during the Salem witchcraft trials.

Today we have a scientific explanation that satisfies some, some of the time, but are we sure?

In Sleep Paralysis you can see, move your eyes and breathe, but the rest of your body is unable to move.  Some episodes of Sleep Paralysis last seconds. The average is six minutes. Occasional an episode of sleep paralysis will last longer than 6 minutes or on rare occasion’s hours.

Many people with Sleep Paralysis, up to 30% also have a history of Panic Attacks. It is more common among those with PTSD or anxiety disorders. Sleep Paralysis is also most common among those with minority status, especially African-Americans (Sharpless et al 2010.)

Other researchers have suggested that dissociation may be related to the old or “Lizard brains” freeze response to threat or danger. The same mechanism might explain the inability to move despite overwhelming terror found in Sleep Paralysis. Fear and anxiety may both cause and be the consequence of Sleep Paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is more common with overtired or sleep deprived individuals. It is also associated with taking Antidepressants, Benzodiazepines and some other medications. Ohayon et al., 1999 (Cited by Sharpless) also suggested a relationship between SSRI’s and Sleep Paralysis but Sharpless did not find a connection.

Sleep paralysis can occur when falling asleep or when awakening from sleep. Its main characteristic is not being able to move for an extended period of time. This condition occurs naturally during REM sleep but we don’t know we are becoming paralyzed when we are asleep.

The episodes of paralysis while awake are most often accompanied by very vivid hallucinations. The more vivid the hallucinations the more terrifying the Sleep Paralysis. Sometimes the person will experience hearing sounds. Even when experiencing the full symptoms of Sleep Paralysis, both the visions and the inability to move, many people describe the experience as a “dream” (Fukuda et al, 2000.)

If the hallucinations occur when falling asleep they are called Hypnogogic. Hallucinations that occur when awakening are called Hypnopompic.

Sleep paralysis may be connected with a physical disorder such as Narcolepsy. Reports suggest that those who hear sounds are most likely to also have narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis has also been associated with Migraines. If this occurs more than once or causes significant distress it is wise to seek medical attention.

Sleep paralysis is more likely to occur when someone has moved to a new location, is under stress or has consumed an excessive amount of alcohol.

Mental health practitioners, therapists, and counselors are mostly concerned with two relationships between sleep and mental health. Is the problem with sleep caused by a mental illness? Symptoms of depression include changes in sleep and appetite. Depression can be seen as the cause of a sleep problem.

Sometimes sleep issues can create symptoms that are diagnosed as mental illness. Nightmares play a role in maintaining depression and PTSD.

Beyond those two alternatives, most other sleep issues are in the providence of medical doctors. There are plenty of sleep problems that are in the International classification of sleep disorders that are not directly included in the DSM.

The following are past posts on connections between sleep and mental health issues.

Getting Rid of Nightmares that Maintain Depression and PTSD

Trauma Steals Your Sleep 

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Is it a medical problem or a mental health problem – Axis III

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Medical record

Diagnosis.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Which Axis does that go on?

UPDATE

Under the DSM-5 system, mental health professionals no longer separate the information onto five Axis. We do still look for this information.

Several questions have come in on the relationship between medical issues, physical symptoms and the five-axis system of the DSM. This is the lay version of that discussion. For a full discussion, you would need to consult the APA site or the full DSM-4-TR. I see from the search terms coming into counselorssoapbox.com that there are several questions about this.

The mental health profession is focused on mental illnesses. The DSM it the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” for a good reason. So if the problem is medical it is outside what we are doing. If you have ANY doubt, please see a medical doctor first and get any possible physical illness or condition ruled out before seeing a therapist. The DSM, however, does not see psychical and mental disorders as two separate things even though different professions may treat different aspects.

Some mental disorders can create symptoms that are physical. People who are depressed may not be able to sleep or they may sleep excessively. Nightmares can be a symptom of PTSD. These sorts of mind-body problems can be helped by therapy. Some disorders have elements of both physical illness and learned behavior. If a mental illness is caused by a medical problem it is diagnosed as a mental illness and goes on axis I. The DSM cites a thyroid condition that results in depression as an example of this. Drug-induced hallucinations would be another.

Short answer – Mental illness goes on Axis I

(Axis II if it is long-term or hard to treat like Personality Disorders)

Some physical conditions can affect your mental health even though they are not the direct cause of the illness. If you become depressed as a result of a cancer diagnosis then the therapist and the psychiatrist would want to know about the cancer when treating your depression. Medical conditions affecting your mental health show up on Axis III. Which is a sort of “oh by the way” thing for therapists.

Medical condition that “influences” your mental health – AXIS III

One reader asked about coding Pregnancy. As I see it if I were treating a client for OCD and she gets pregnant, the pregnancy does not have to be coded. If I were treating this same person for depression and anxiety as a result of a rape and now she finds out she is pregnant, well the pregnancy may now have an effect on her mental health.

Sleep disorders are especially troubling. Poor sleep can be a symptom of a mental illness as in depression. Poor sleep can cause mental illness as in a breathing problem (sleep apnea) that prevents good sleep and creates depression or irritability. Intrusive nightmares can be a sign of PTSD. They can also be causing or maintain the symptoms.

There are some sleep disorders listed in the DSM but that list is not as inclusive as the list in the International Classification of Sleep Disorders. Sometimes there is a connection and sometimes people have a mental illness and sleep disorders that may influence each other but are not directly linked.

Sleep disorders are a highly specialized area. If you have a problem with sleep I recommend that you talk with your physician and you may need a referral to a sleep specialist.

In a future blog post or two, I want to discuss some conditions that get mistaken for other things and mixed up with mental health diagnosis.

More on Sleep Paralysis, Hypnagogic Hallucinations (Hypnagogia), Hypnopompic Hallucinations, Lucid Dreaming and their relationship to mental illness in posts to come.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.