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Posted by Nicholas Crusie

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What Is Paradoxical Sleep?

7 min read

Paradox. This is a term commonly understood in the realm of Philosophy and other intellectual pursuits.

Describing something as paradoxical is to say it initially seems self-contradictory, but when considered more deeply, it does, in fact, make sense.

For example, consider that failure is the key to success – sounds ridiculous? But in fact, the lessons learned from failure will set you up to be more prepared for the adversity that comes your way. 

What Is a Paradox?

So what does this have to do with sleep? A lot, it turns out. The term Paradoxical Sleep is over - and often incorrectly used – to describe a few sleep-related phenomena.

It is used to describe a state of sleep, a sleep disorder, and a cure for a sleep disorder! This article will help break down these different definitions and why they matter. 

We’ll say it once, and we’ll say it again, we spend – or at least should spend – a third of our life sleeping. It is the state that is crucial to our mental and physical recovery and rejuvenation. For that reason, it is worth understanding the science and the magic behind the act of sleeping. 

Read on to discover what happens when we sleep and how paradoxical sleep factors in. 

The Sleep Cycle and Paradoxical Sleep

The sleep cycle is made up of four different stages, and it repeats itself approximately four to five times during the sleeping hours. Each stage serves a different function, with the first three being characterized by Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and the last being Rapid Eye Movement (REM).

In the REM stage, your eyes are moving in different directions at a rapid pace, but - as your eyes are closed - no visual information is sent to the brain. REM is interchangeably described as paradoxical sleep or dream sleep - but more of that later.

First, let’s break down the different stages. 

NREM Stage 1

You know that moment where you’re finally drifting off to a sleep state, but a loud sound abruptly wakes you? That initial dozy period between wakefulness and sleep is called NREM stage 1, lasting up to ten minutes.

It’s characterized by a slowing down of the heartbeat, eye movement, and breathing.  

NREM Stage 2

NREM stage 2 is a deeper sleep state than stage 1. However, loud noises can still arouse you from sleep. In this period, you become less aware of your surroundings, and your heart rate and breathing regulate.

Lasting up to 25 minutes in the first cycle of sleep, stage 2 eventually makes up 50% of a sleep cycle as the night progresses. It is in this stage that most memory consolidation is thought to occur.  

NREM Stage 3

NREM stage 3 is also known as Delta Sleep, as delta waves - a type of brain wave -  are introduced. This stage is considered a transition from light to deep sleep. The heartbeat and breathing slow further, and the muscles become completely relaxed. It is far harder to wake someone from this deep sleep stage.

At this point, the body is repairing itself. Lasting typically from 20 to 40 minutes, this stage becomes shorter in later cycles, while the REM stage becomes longer.  

REM

REM is the stage of sleep in which you dream most intensely. It is a deeper stage of sleep than NREM stage one or two but can last from anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on the cycle. Overall, REM accounts for 20-25% of the sleep cycle. 

Apart from the eyes and the breathing muscles, the body becomes totally paralyzed - known as atonia. It is thought to be the body’s way of protecting itself from acting on dreams. The eye movement is also believed to correlate to dreaming; however, it is still somewhat a mystery. Your brain activity, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate increase during REM sleep. 

Paradoxical Sleep

REM is alternatively described as paradoxical sleep because it is characterized by both body paralysis and heightened brain activity that is similar to when we are awake. 

A paradox is understood to be something that may seem incompatible on the surface, for example, increased brain activity yet a paralyzed physical state. On closer look, these seemingly contradictory occurrences actually work in harmony. While unpleasant in the dreamworld, that sensation of not being able to run away in a dream or nightmare might actually prevent you from jumping out of bed and seriously hurting yourself! 

Acting out dreams while asleep is a sign of REM Sleep Disorder. Not only is it dangerous, but it might also be indicative of an underlying health issue. If you are struggling with this, it is important to see a doctor if this condition becomes persistent.

Getting to the bottom of that paradox does not make REM sleep less of a mystery. In fact, it has been said to constitute one of the greatest knowledge gaps in science.

The general consensus is that REM sleep is important for learning and memory consolidation; unfortunately, why that is the case remains unknown. 

Paradoxical Insomnia

Paradoxical sleep (REM)  is often mixed up with paradoxical insomnia, which is a sleep disorder rather than a function of normal sleep patterns. 

We know that the paradox of REM sleep is that the body is paralyzed, yet the brain is highly active. When it comes to paradoxical insomnia, it is that you feel sleep-deprived despite having an adequate amount of sleep. 

Those with paradoxical insomnia are convinced they’ve tossed and turned all night, yet when monitored using a polysomnography (PSG) sleep study, it transpires they are well-rested. This is unlike most cases of insomnia, which are marked by the inability to fall asleep/stay asleep rather than just the sensation of not being able to. 

While insomnia affects roughly 35% of the U.S. population, only 5% of these cases are paradoxical. Being a rare problem, there is limited research into understanding how and why paradoxical insomnia occurs.

However, if you notice your partner is complaining about lack of sleep despite seeming to sleep well, or they mention as such to you - paradoxical insomnia may be the issue. 

It is thought that good sleep hygiene practices may help reduce the experience of paradoxical insomnia. Sleep hygiene is an umbrella term for creating an environment and adopting habits that help promote relaxation and ultimately good quality sleep. 

A big component of good sleep hygiene is investing in high-quality bedding. That’s why at Miracle, we have created the perfect set of sheets and a comforter that guarantee cleanliness and comfort in one fell swoop. The luxurious sateen weave Supima cotton is infused with naturally antimicrobial silver. The silver helps protect your sleep environment from bacterial growth, which may exacerbate the sensation of not feeling well-rested. 

Other factors that contribute to good sleep hygiene include a consistent nighttime routine and sleep schedule. 

Paradoxical Intention

Paradoxical insomnia can also be treated, along with other forms of insomnia, by paradoxical intention - ridiculous, we know! Paradoxical intention is named as such because it encourages patients to try and stay up in order to fall asleep more easily.

The theory goes that by actively trying to go to sleep, the stress you put on yourself actually makes it harder. 

Paradoxical intention is a cognitive behavioral technique where you actively try and stay up. By doing so, you relieve the pressure of trying to make yourself fall asleep. When using the paradoxical intention technique, it is recommended that you avoid the bedroom so as to make a distinction between ‘awake’ space and ‘sleep space.’

Paradox and Pajamas

As we have discovered, ‘paradox’ is a term that crops up along in sleep-related phenomena. 

Here is a brief rundown of what they mean and how they differ:

Paradoxical sleep is another term for the REM stage of the sleep cycle. It is paradoxical because it is characterized by body paralysis and high-frequency brain activity. This allows us to dream deeply and perhaps absurdly without acting out on our dreams. 

Paradoxical insomnia is a rare form of insomnia in which one believes they are sleep deprived despite showing normal sleeping habits. 

Paradoxical intention is a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that reduces performance anxiety related to falling asleep by encouraging the sufferer to stay awake. 

Understanding the difference between these similar terms is important for having a more robust knowledge of what constitutes sleep and how it can be impacted. 

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