Skip to navigation
Vitamins &
Supplements
Sports

What Is Sleep Paralysis? Understanding Your Symptoms

What Is Sleep Paralysis? Understanding Your Symptoms

During an episode of sleep paralysis, the brain becomes conscious and awake, while the rest of the body remains immobilised. It is a common condition, with higher rates exhibited among teenagers, young adults, and psychiatric patients, especially those with panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.i

Sleep paralysis is different for everyone — its severity and length will vary from person to person. It can be a very stressful experience but generally, it’s a benign, one-off occurrence. Still, sleep paralysis is an intriguing condition and one worth understanding.  This article explores the symptoms and causes of this widespread sleep disorder, as well as outlining some of the most effective management tools.


What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a disorder that occurs in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. According to studies, this phenomenon normally happens soon after falling asleep, at some point during sleep, or just before a person’s usual time of awakening.ii

Although there’s no one way of experiencing sleep paralysis, researchers generally define it as a “common parasomnia characterised by an inability to move or sleep and often accompanied by hallucinations of a sensed presence nearby”.iii

Beyond being paralysed temporarily, you may also experience one or more of the following symptoms during a sleep paralysis episode:iv

  • You may find it difficult to take full, deep inhalations as if your chest is being restricted or crushed.

  • You can move and open your eyes.

  • You may experience strange hallucinations; some people believe there’s a supernatural being in the room that wishes to harm them. One study found that out of 185 patients suffering from sleep paralysis, 58% detected an evil presence in the room.v Commonly experienced hallucinations include proprioceptive hallucinations (sensations of floating or flying); tactile hallucinations (sensations of pressure); auditory hallucinations (hearing noises, like footsteps, breathing, or shuffling); and visual hallucinations (seeing a human, animal or monster).vi

  • You may experience headaches, paranoia and muscles pain.

  • You may feel extremely scared.


The length of a sleep paralysis attack can range from a few seconds to several minutes. While you’ll be able to speak and move normally afterwards, you may, understandably, feel anxious and tense about going to sleep again. If you feel anxious, try some sleep-promoting relaxation exercises.


What causes sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis happens when fragments of REM sleep occur while you’re awake.vii REM sleep is the phase of sleep where learning is consolidated, memories are entrenched, and, most notably, dreaming happens. At this stage of the sleep cycle, everything besides your eyes and the muscles used in breathing is effectively paralysed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams and potentially injuring yourself.

In sleep paralysis, the body’s shift from or to REM sleep is out of synch with the brain. Your consciousness is awake, yet your body remains in a paralysed state of sleep. Experts are still unsure why REM sleep can occur when you’re awake, but it’s been linked to the following risk factorsviii :

  • Narcolepsy — a chronic condition that causes individuals to experience sleep attacks, cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle tone), vivid hallucinations at sleep onset, and sleep paralysis.ix

  • Irregular sleep patterns, due to shift work or jet lag.

  • Stress — some experts believe sleep paralysis often coincides with periods of stress.x

  • Anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and panic disorder.xi

  • Sleep deprivation or insomnia.

  • A family history of sleep paralysis.


How can you manage sleep paralysis?

Although sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, it’s not considered dangerous. In most cases, it’s a very rare event that occurs in otherwise healthy individuals. If you have occasional sleep paralysis, there are measures you can take at home to manage the disorder. Ultimately, it comes down to maintaining healthy sleep hygiene, as outlined below.xii

  • Try to get a good night’s sleep every night: give yourself a non-negotiable seven to nine-hour sleep opportunity window.

  • Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day.

  • Ensure your sleeping environment is temperate, quiet, and dark.

  • Get plenty of regular exercise but avoid physical activity within four hours of going to bed.

  • Avoid the overuse of stimulants, like alcohol and tobacco, before bed.

  • Prioritise relaxation and mindfulness-based techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, and visualisation before bed.

  • Try sleeping on your side instead of your back.


If you’re experiencing sleep paralysis regularly or feel especially anxious about going to sleep, it’s a good idea to see your GP to discuss further management options.

When you’re in a sleep paralysis episode, it can be scary and overwhelming. But it can be helpful to remind yourself this phenomenon is short-lived, harmless, and extremely common.

To learn more about different sleep conditions, as well as how you can improve your sleep hygiene to wake up energised, explore the articles on our sleep health hub.
 



References:

  1. & Lifetime prevalence rates of sleep paralysis: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 15(5), 311-315.

  2. & Timing of spontaneous sleep-paralysis episodes. Journal of Sleep Research. 15(2), 222-229.

  3. , , , , & Sensed presence as a correlate of sleep paralysis distress, social anxiety and waking state social imagery. Consciousness and Cognition. 17(1), 49-63.

  4. NHS UK. Sleep paralysis. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleep-paralysis

  5. & Clinical features of isolated sleep paralysis. Sleep Medicines. 58, 102-106.

  6. Thepsychologist.bps.org.uk. Terror in the night. The Psychologist. Available online: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-22/edition-8/terror-night

  7. Sleep paralysis: What is it, and how can you cope with it? Medical News Today. Available online: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321569.php

  8. , & A systematic review of variables associated with sleep paralysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 38, 141-157.

  9. Sleepfoundation.org. Hallucinations and Sleep Paralysis: National Sleep Foundation. Available online: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/narcolepsy/symptoms/hallucinations-and-sleep-paralysis#targetText=Hallucinations%20and%20Sleep%20Paralysis,as%20they%20are%20waking%20up.&targetText=At%20the%20same%20time%2C%20people,falling%20asleep%20or%20waking%20up

  10. Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment. https://www.livescience.com/50876-sleep-paralysis.html

  11. , , , , & Sensed presence as a correlate of sleep paralysis distress, social anxiety and waking state social imagery. Consciousness and Cognition. 17(1), 49-63.

  12. NHS UK. Sleep paralysis. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleep-paralysis

   

Related Posts

   
 
Our Author - Olivia Salter

Olivia

Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.

View More