Sleep experts must really love the word “paradox,” because they use it to describe four unique sleep concepts that are all pretty different: paradoxical sleep, paradoxical sleep deprivation, paradoxical insomnia, and paradoxical intention.

That might sound confusing, but have no fear. We’ll walk you through all four of ’em to help you get a better idea of what these concepts mean for you and getting the Zzz’s you need.

What is paradoxical sleep?

Paradoxical sleep is commonly known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, but it has many other names, including activated sleep, desynchronized sleep, dream sleep, and D-sleep. If those terms are too basic for you, you can also call it rhombencephalic sleep.

Paradoxical sleep is not a sleep disorder. It’s the phase of sleep where most of your dreaming happens, and it’s also a super important time for your brain and muscles to recover.

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Ibai Acevedo/Stocksy United – Image for illustrative purposes.

According to Merriam-Webster, a paradox is “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”

Some easy examples of this are the sayings “Less is more” and “If I know one thing, it’s that I know nothing.”

During paradoxical (aka REM) sleep, things get trippy. Your heart rate increases, and your body stops regulating temperature. Your brain activity is strong (as if you were awake), so you might have vivid dreams — but your body is essentially paralyzed.

So basically, your brain’s having a big ol’ party that your body wasn’t invited to! And that’s the paradox. 🥳

Sleep on this

Even though we spend a third of our lives doing it, there’s still much mystery surrounding the phenomenon of sleep.

Most experts believe our bodies automatically shut off our voluntary muscular activity so we don’t hurt ourselves or others while dreaming. But our involuntary muscular activity continues because, well, breathing.

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Paradoxical sleep deprivation is when you’re not spending enough time in the paradoxical sleep stage. So you’re able to fall asleep and stay asleep, but you’re stuck in the light sleep stage.

Because muscle repair, waste-flushing, brain-building, and energy recharge — among many other things — happen in the deeper stages of sleep, staying in shallow sleep mode can have some serious long-term health consequences.

Some symptoms of paradoxical sleep deprivation are:

Getting a diagnosis of paradoxical sleep deprivation may involve staying overnight for tests in a sleep lab or wearing a sleep monitoring device for a few weeks.

Sleep monitoring devices can give you a good estimate of total sleep time, but they’re not as accurate in determining the different stages of sleep, including REM sleep.

Treatments vary, because they depend on the root cause. Some common treatments are:

  • Prescription meds. Sleep meds like zolpidem and suvorexant should be taken with caution and not as a long-term solution. And they won’t fix the underlying issue.
  • Stimulus control therapy. Restricting the activities you do in the bedroom can help strengthen the connection between the bedroom and sleep.
  • Relaxation and biofeedback therapy. Docs use sensors on your skin to record muscle tension and brain rhythms to help you manipulate your brain into sleeping. These techniques are not very practical and are usually done in a research setting.
  • Sleep restriction therapy. This involves limiting the amount of time you spend in your bed.
  • Aromatherapy. You use botanical oils to theoretically activate brain sensors that induce sleep.

Paradoxical insomnia is a whole separate thing. It’s a rare sleep disorder in which you feel like you’re not sleeping but show no physical signs of sleep deprivation. It’s also known as sleep state misrepresentation.

It can be a frustrating and lonely experience, because people around you may think you’re lying or trying to get attention. If you go in to get tested, the results will show that you are indeed getting sleep, so it can be difficult to diagnose.

Paradoxical insomnia can lead to:

  • unnecessary (and ineffective) self-medication
  • low self-esteem resulting from feeling like nobody believes you
  • tension in relationships
  • anxiety and depression

While it’s not true insomnia, paradoxical insomnia is best treated with many of the same techniques used for insomnia, such as:

  • patient reassurance
  • cognitive-behavioral restructuring (including paradoxical intention)
  • sleep hygiene education
  • meditation and relaxation techniques
  • medication (a short-term solution)

Paradoxical intention

This cognitive behavioral therapy technique uses the paradox of doing the opposite of the intended outcome to induce a desired result. So, instead of lying in bed willing yourself to fall asleep (which never works, BTW), you will yourself to stay awake.

This can reduce some of the pressure and anxiety of feeling like you have to fall asleep and, in a sense, trick your brain into feeling sleepy. If you’ve ever tried really hard not to nod off while studying, driving, or watching a movie, then you can see how this technique works!

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Paradoxical sleep (also called REM sleep) is characterized by a super active brain and a pretty much paralyzed body — and it’s also when many restorative processes take place.

The word “paradox” also pops up in other sleep-related concepts, including:

  • Paradoxical sleep deprivation: not getting enough sleep in the paradoxical (REM) sleep stage
  • Paradoxical insomnia: feeling like you aren’t sleeping when you actually are
  • Paradoxical intention: a cognitive behavioral therapy technique for insomnia that involves intentionally trying to stay awake instead of trying to fall asleep

Paradoxical sleep is not a sleep disorder. But if you’re ever having trouble getting the sleep you need, reach out to a medical professional to talk about ways to improve your sleep. Good sleep is absolutely vital for living your best and healthiest life.