Sleep paralysis, hallucinations may raise depression risk in some people

Student athletes will often have sleep problems, with insomnia and sleep apnea being the most frequent.

Most young athletes simply do not get enough sleep. One recent survey — from the American College Health Association — found that most student athletes have 4 nights of insufficient sleep per week, on average.

But how prevalent are some less common sleep problems, such as sleep paralysis and sleep hallucinations, in this group?

This is the question that a team of researchers — led by Michael Grandner, the director of the Sleep and Health Research Program and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson — set out to investigate.

Specifically, Grandner and his colleagues looked at the occurrence of sleep paralysis and sleep hallucinations.

Serena Liu, a researcher in the Sleep and Health Research Program, is the first author of the paper, which was presented at SLEEP 2018, the 32nd annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, held in Baltimore, MD.

Studying sleep problems in young athletes

The researchers wanted to investigate how often sleep paralysis and hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations occurred among student athletes.

So, they asked 189 participants who were a part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I to take part in a survey.

In the survey, the students were asked to rate statements such as, “When I am first awakening, I feel like I can’t move” and “When falling asleep or waking up, I experience scary, dream-like images” with “never,” “rarely,” or “often.”

The first statement refers to sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that is defined as “a common, generally benign, parasomnia characterized by brief episodes of inability to move or speak combined with waking consciousness.”

The second statement is meant to assess hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations — that is, hallucinations that start before and after falling asleep, respectively.

Additionally, Liu and colleagues evaluated the participants’ mental well-being by asking them to use the Centers for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale.

Sleep problems predict depression severity

Overall, 18 percent of the participants said that they experience sleep paralysis occasionally, while 7 percent said that they experience it “often” — that is, at least once per week.

Also, 24 percent of the students reported sleep hallucinations occasionally, while 11 percent said that they experienced them at least once each week.

The scientists were also surprised to find a strong link between these sleep disturbances and high scores on the depression scale.

“What was […] surprising was that the degree to which people reported these symptoms predicted severity of depression symptoms, even after controlling for poor sleep and lack of sleep — which can contribute to both depression and these types of sleep symptoms,” explains Grandner.

These symptoms are often thought to be relatively harmless and quite rare. But they can be very distressing to those who experience them, and they may be surprisingly common among student athletes.”

Michael Grandner

Liu also weighs in, saying, “The fact that [sleep paralysis and sleep hallucinations] are so common among student athletes suggests that this is a group with some significant sleep problems that should be evaluated and dealt with.”

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