8 mins

27 April 2022

What is Sleep Paralysis and How to Prevent It

If you’re here, you have probably had the frightening experience of waking up and feeling unable to move your body. Sometimes, it’s so bad that people complain they are unable to breathe during moments like this.  If you’re here to understand this further, read on below as you untangle the mysteries of Sleep Paralysis.

The NHS defines sleep paralysis as the inability to move or speak as you are wake up or fall asleep. This temporary loss of muscle function typically occurs when you are transitioning from being awake to asleep. While generally harmless, the feeling of being in this paralyzed state is frightening for many because of the feeling of helplessness.

When you are in the REM stage of sleep, your brain automatically paralyzes your body causing it to relax and be still. The brain does this to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Normally, when you are waking up the brain releases the body immediately from its paralysis. In some sleeping disorders, like Narcolepsy, the paralysis is prolonged into the state of wakefulness which causes our body to be unable to move even when you are already fully conscious. This should wear off within a few minutes and full control of your body should be regained.

However, sleep paralysis is also experienced by healthy individuals, not just those suffering from narcolepsy. Even though sleep paralysis does not pose significant risks, if it occurs regularly or is getting worse, medical help should be sought and a visit to the doctor’s office is needed.

There are two types of sleep paralysis. The main difference between the two is when they occur during our sleep:

  • if it occurs when you are falling asleep, it is hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis,
  • if it occurs as you are waking up, it is called hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.

It is possible to think about these two conditions as particular and rare states of consciousness, strictly connected with hallucinations.

In hypnagogic sleep paralysis, your body slowly relaxes because you are about to fall asleep. During this time, you become less aware of what is happening, so you do not notice the change in your own body. But, if you suddenly become aware, you will find that you are unable to speak or move during this time.

Hypnopompic sleep paralysis happened while you alternate between Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep. As mentioned, your body muscles are numb during REM sleep to allow us to dream safely by not acting it out. If your awake state of consciousness resurfaces before the REM cycle ends, you will feel paralyzed, unable to move or speak.

Sleep Paralysis is not usually worrisome, and it is not a medical emergency. But because of what happens during sleep paralysis, many people are afraid to experience this. Being familiar with what happens and knowing that these would not usually last more than 2 minutes, can help bring peace of mind and allay our fears.

The most common experience during sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak – hence, it is called paralysis. But there are other symptoms you may experience during an episode:

  • Feeling of someone or something pushing you down
  • Feeling heaviness on the chest area
  • Feeling like someone is looking at you or someone is in the room
  • Being afraid
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations – smelling, hearing, tasting, or feeling things when you are asleep

Others have also reported having symptoms like:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Choking
  • Sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Paranoia
  • Feeling as if you are going to die

An episode will usually last for about 2 minutes before you slowly regain control of your body and the paralysis disappears. You may be able to recall our experience after the episode.

When you experience sleep paralysis, you will find out that this will usually end on its own. Sleep paralysis may also stop when a person touches, moves, or jolts you awake. Exerting a really big effort to move and release your body from paralysis may also help end an episode.

Sources say that as many as four out of ten people may have sleep paralysis. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that this condition can be first noticed during the teenage years and occurs most often when you are in your 20s or 30s. The condition may also continue into our later years.

Sleep paralysis can affect anyone – man or woman. It can affect different age groups as well. Studies vary widely in estimating the number of people who have this. Estimates can vary from 5% to 40% of people who have this condition. However, if you have a relative who has it, you will be more likely to have it as well.

While anyone can experience sleep paralysis, lack of sleep, or a sleep schedule that often changes can make us more susceptible to experience this condition. Stress is also something you should take into account that can contribute to this experience. Sleep Paralysis may also be related to the following factors:

  • Sleeping on your back
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Sleep-related leg cramps
  • Narcolepsy
  • Use of medications to treat mental disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Insomnia

Ultimately, having poor sleep hygiene will increase your likelihood of having a sleep paralysis episode.

Medical attention is not usually needed for sleep paralysis. If you find yourself unable to move or speak a few minutes after waking up or while falling asleep, it may be an isolated case and there is no need to treat that condition. However, if you have any of the following experiences, you should go and see the doctor:

  • You feel worried and anxious about your symptoms
  • You are afraid to go to sleep at night
  • Your symptoms are keeping you up
  • You feel very tired during the day because of lack of sleep

How can you treat Sleep Paralysis?

Isolated sleep paralysis is often not treated. However, if it is recurring or if it is part of another underlying condition, like Narcolepsy, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat the underlying condition and not necessarily the sleep paralysis. Your doctor may also ask you to participate in a sleep study called polysomnography which can help your doctor diagnose your condition. Once your doctor has made a diagnosis, they may give you a variety of treatment options which can include medication or drug-free solutions like cognitive behavioral therapy to address any anxiety or stress brought about by your symptoms.

To prevent sleep paralysis or reduce its occurrence, lifestyle changes are needed. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is important for addressing sleep paralysis as well as your overall health. Some of the things you can do include:

  • Avoid or reduce stress
  • Get regular exercise, like yoga or even just breathing exercises, but avoid exercising close to bedtime
  • Get enough rest
  • Maintain a healthy and regular sleep schedule
  • Try different sleeping positions if you are a back sleeper
  • Understand certain medications you may be taking for other conditions that may potentially have sleep paralysis as a side effect
  • Avoid sleep interruption

It can be very scary to experience sleep paralysis and related hallucinations. It can feel as though sleep paralysis demons are out to get you and kill you while you are unable to help yourself. But there is no need for you to fight off these demons because there are steps you can take to prevent this from happening again. After reading this article you are now aware that this sleep paralysis is quite common and there is little to worry about. However, if this condition is preventing you from living your life and has become debilitating, be sure to see your doctor and ask for medical advice.

Our hope is that through this article, we were able to help you in finding some peace of mind and lessen your worries about sleep paralysis.

If you enjoyed this article, don't keep it to yourself!

Share it with your friends!

Related stories

Sleep Meditation: Secret to Better Sleep

Have you ever experienced trouble in falling asleep?  You close your eyes but your mind keeps spinning so you cannot fall asleep? Well, sometimes our minds just won’t stop bothering us – and that’s where meditation can help. To fall asleep, our body and mind need to calm down and relax. Sounds simple, right? However, many people find this utterly difficult to do. Meditation, as a relaxation technique, may help you to quiet your body and mind while enhancing inner peace and balance. This is especially useful when you start focusing on worrisome thoughts at night in bed a time when you are not as easily distracted by other things as during the day.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep plays an essential role in keeping our body and mind healthy and recharged. Without enough hours of sleep, you’ll start feeling the symptoms and effects of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a condition caused by inadequate quantity and quality of sleep. This condition is common among teens and adults. According to the National Health Service (NHS), teenagers (ages 13-18) need at least eight to 10 hours of sleep. Meanwhile, adults (ages 19-60 years) need six to nine hours of sleep per night. But various studies have revealed that around 33% of teens and 63% of adults in the UK are not getting enough sleep, which could lead to many health problems if not treated or resolved right. It’s important for people to realise how important sleep is for their physical and mental health. Treating sleep deprivation early on can help you live a healthier life and become more productive in the day. 

The Role of Technology in Helping and Hurting Your Sleep

We’ve all heard claims of how technology has interfered with our ability to sleep well. Many say that the light from the screens hurt our ability to sleep quickly and deeply, while others say that the distraction that technology frequently creates hurts sleep quality. While some of these claims are true, simply saying that tech is bad for sleep is false! After all, technology encompasses so many different devices than the typical laptop or phone. Other technologies out there exist that are created to facilitate better sleep!

8 Science-Backed Tips for Better Sleep

It’s well-established that getting quality sleep is essential to our physical and mental health. Getting a good night’s sleep is just as important as a healthy diet and regular exercise. But despite its importance, over the past few decades, people’s sleep quality and quantity have declined with a troubling percentage of 33% among adults not getting enough proper sleep. Many are seeking the best tips for better sleep because poor sleep has immediate negative psychical and mental impacts on health

8 Science-Backed Tips for Better Sleep

It’s well-established that getting quality sleep is essential to our physical and mental health. Getting a good night’s sleep is just as important as a healthy diet and regular exercise. But despite its importance, over the past few decades, people’s sleep quality and quantity have declined with a troubling percentage of 33% among adults not getting enough proper sleep. Many are seeking the best tips for better sleep because poor sleep has immediate negative psychical and mental impacts on health

5 tips to help your baby sleep better and safer

By now you know that babies have a crazy tendency of sleeping in various bizarre positions. Some might even seem funny, but it’s always better to ensure they sleep in positions where they are not just comfortable, but also safe. Since babies spend 70% of their time asleep, let’s look at simple precautions one can take as a parent to ensure safe sleep for your baby.

Product Review: White Noise Machines

Have you ever experienced trying to sleep with a lot of background noise, only to find out you are unable to? We are sure you’ve tried options like putting on earplugs or stuffing your head under the pillow, which probably did not work as good as you had hoped. Thankfully, white noise machines have recently been made available to help troubled sleepers ignore disruptive background noise so they can sleep peacefully. Sleep Science wants to help everyone get the best night’s sleep. That’s why we have reviewed and tested some popular white noise machines to help you drown out the noise that keeps interrupting your sleep. But first, let’s get you informed on what these machines can do.

Product Review: Philips Smart Lightbulb

It is now well-known: light is one of the essential elements in our sleep-wake cycle. Indeed, the type of light present in the environment is connected to producing different kinds of chemical compounds. To understand this, we can take a look at the diurnal variation of light. While there is more bluish light, we are more inclined to produce excitatory hormones (first and foremost cortisol). On the other hand, during the late afternoon, when the light is reddish - hormones are linked to more relaxing effects (i.e., melatonin). Notably, the production of hormones affects our sleep-wake cycle and interacts with our mood, emotions, and feelings. In other words, the type of light surrounding us, and therefore the type and quantity of hormones produced, influence our mental life. The reasons listed above make it clear why many sleep experts recommend meticulous care in setting home lightings, particularly in the bedroom.