Sleep paralysis occurs when a person’s consciousness is awake, but their body is still in a paralyzed sleep state.
During sleep paralysis, a person’s senses and awareness are active and awake, but their body cannot move. It occurs just as a person is falling asleep or waking up and is the result of the body and mind being out of sync.
During sleep paralysis, a person may experience audio and visual hallucinations, which can cause significant distress.
In this article, we detail the causes and symptoms of sleep paralysis and what a person can do to lessen the risk of experiencing it.
While sleeping, the body relaxes, and voluntary muscles do not move. This prevents people from injuring themselves when acting out dreams. A person may wake up while their body is in this relaxed state. This is sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis occurs in the time between waking and sleep. During episodes, people may experience hypnopompic or hypnagogic hallucinations, which can be visual, auditory, and sensory. These are hallucinations that occur as a person is waking up or falling asleep, respectively.
Sleep paralysis is not life threatening, but it can cause anxiety. It can happen alongside other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy.
The condition is a parasomnia, an undesired event that is associated with sleep.
In sleep paralysis, the body’s transition to or from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is out of sync with the brain. The person’s consciousness is awake, but
The body alternates between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM).
One REM–NREM cycle lasts around 90 minutes, and most of the time spent sleeping is in NREM. During NREM, the body relaxes. During REM, the eyes move quickly, but the body is relaxed. Dreams occur at this time.
The areas of the brain that detect threats are in a heightened state and overly sensitive.
Factors that may increase the risk of sleep paralysis
- irregular sleeping patterns, due to things like jet lag or shift work
- a family history of sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis can be a symptom of medical problems, including:
The core symptom of sleep paralysis is the inability to move the body when falling asleep or waking. However, during these episodes, people may experience other symptoms, including:
- being unable to speak during the episode
- having hallucinations and sensations
- feeling pressure on the chest
- having difficulty breathing
- headaches and muscle pains
Most people will only experience sleep paralysis once or twice in their life. However, if a person experiences recurrent sleep paralysis that is causing anxiety, stress, or impacting their quality of life, they may wish to seek medical assistance.
A doctor will assess a person’s symptoms and full medical history when diagnosing sleep paralysis. If they suspect episodes may be the result of other conditions, they may recommend a person takes part in a sleep study.
Suddenly falling asleep during the day could be a sign of narcolepsy. This rare brain disorder causes a person to fall asleep or lose muscle control at unexpected or inappropriate times.
If stress or anxiety are present, addressing these may help relieve symptoms.
Strategies for improving sleep hygiene include:
- ensuring 6–8 hours of sleep per night
- keeping bedtime and wakeup time consistent
- maintaining a dark, temperate bedroom
- reducing light exposure in the evening and using night-lights for bathroom trips at night
- getting good daylight exposure during waking hours
- not eating a heavy evening meal, or eating within 2 hours of going to bed
- abstaining from evening alcohol or caffeine products
- exercising daily, but not within 2 hours of bedtime
Understanding the physiology of sleep and the mechanism for sleep paralysis is an important step to overcoming it.
Ongoing stress and disruption in the sleep cycle can have serious health implications. Healthy sleep habits are not just necessary for sleep paralysis management but for overall health and wellness.
Medications and therapy
If a person experiences sleep paralysis due to narcolepsy, or other sleep disorders, a medical practitioner may recommend drug treatments or psychotherapy to manage these conditions.
Drug treatments that may help manage narcolepsy-associated sleep paralysis
Doctors may be able to educate and reassure people for whom sleep paralysis is causing stress and anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy may also help people establish coping mechanisms for sleep paralysis events and address underlying causes, such as insomnia and poor sleep habits.
How to wake up
A person will wake up from sleep paralysis naturally. While the occurrence can be frightening, it will pass with time. There is no way that a person can force their body to move out of a paralysis state.
During sleep paralysis, a person is awake and cognitive, but they cannot move their body. This occurs when a person’s mind and body are out of sync at the point of falling asleep or waking up.
During sleep paralysis, a person may experience audio, visual, and sensory hallucinations.
There is no treatment for sleep paralysis, and it is not a medical emergency. However, episodes can cause significant distress.