Some people with narcolepsy experience sleep paralysis, which is when they are unable to move on waking up. This may be due to how both conditions affect the nervous system.

Sleep paralysis is a feature of narcolepsy and affects between 25% and 70% of people with this condition. However, having sleep paralysis does not necessarily mean someone has narcolepsy.

Sleep paralysis can also affect those with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), insomnia, and other sleep disorders. Isolated sleep paralysis is when it occurs alone without any other condition.

In this article, learn more about sleep paralysis, narcolepsy, and the link between them.

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Narcolepsy is a rare neurological disorder that affects 0.02% of the population. The main feature is severe daytime sleepiness, but symptoms can also include sleep paralysis and cataplexy.

Sleep paralysis tends to occur when a person is in the REM stage of sleep. It can be frightening, as a person is unable to open their eyes, speak, or move for some seconds or minutes. Cataplexy causes muscle weakness during a person’s waking hours.

Sleep paralysis affects between 25% and 70% of people with narcolepsy. Some scientists suggest that sleep paralysis may stem from the same neurological changes that cause cataplexy. However, not everyone with narcolepsy experiences sleep paralysis, and vice versa.

Around 50% of all those will experience at least one episode of sleep paralysis at some point in their lives, even without another sleep condition.

During sleep paralysis, the mind is conscious and awake, but the body muscles are still in the REM stage of sleep and are unable to move. The person cannot open their eyes or speak.

Other symptoms of sleep paralysis include:

  • intruder hallucinations, which is when the person feels something evil or dangerous is in the room
  • incubus hallucinations, which cause a feeling of heaviness on the chest that someone may attribute to a creature or person sitting on them
  • an overwhelming feeling of fear, distress, and suffocation, although some people report feelings of bliss
  • illusory feelings of movement, which is when an individual feels as if they are moving although they are not

In people with narcolepsy, the REM stage of sleep starts quickly and suddenly, so they may experience sleep paralysis sooner in the sleep cycle than others if they have this symptom.

They may have hallucinations on falling asleep or waking up, as well as:

  • cataplexy, or sudden attacks of muscle weakness, especially after experiencing intense emotion
  • fragmented nighttime sleep
  • restlessness and inattention in children

In REM sleep, the body’s muscles become unable to move. This is to prevent people from responding physically to dreams, as in REM sleep behavior disorder.

In sleep paralysis, the mind wakes up before the body, so the person is conscious during the REM sleep but cannot move.

Experts believe sleep paralysis may stem from low levels of a sleep hormone known as hypocretin, also known as orexin. This deficiency may result from issues with the autoimmune response.

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Around 7.6% of the general population experience sleep paralysis. There is no definitive list of risk factors, but it appears to be more common in people who:

  • have an anxiety disorder
  • have experience of traumatic events
  • have low sleep quality
  • consume alcohol
  • have a family history of sleep paralysis
  • have another sleep condition, such as OSA or insomnia

What helps with sleep paralysis may depend on the cause. Different treatments are available for those with narcolepsy versus those with isolated sleep paralysis.

For sleep paralysis in narcolepsy

For those with narcolepsy, some medications may help reduce the number of sleep paralysis episodes. A 2020 review specifically highlights certain antidepressants as being potentially helpful for this. These drugs may help reduce both cataplexy and sleep paralysis at the same time.

For isolated sleep paralysis

For people with isolated sleep paralysis, there are no specific treatments. Although it can cause concerns, occasional episodes are not uncommon and often go away on their own.

General sleep hygiene, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and getting sufficient sleep may help reduce sleep paralysis episodes in those without narcolepsy.

People who have frequent sleep paralysis may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, which can teach coping strategies for managing frightening hallucinations.

In a 2016 case study, one researcher proposed that focused attention meditation in combination with muscle relaxation therapy might help manage an episode. However, no large-scale studies have tested this.

The approach encourages a person to move away from uncontrolled fearful thoughts by focusing on an object or meditation. Overall, the aim is to “adopt a non-judgmental attitude of acceptance toward physical symptoms.”

It involves the following steps:

  1. Reappraising the meaning of the attack: Recall that this is a temporary, physiological event.
  2. Psychological and emotional distancing: Focus on the fact there is no need to fear and that anxiety will make things worse.
  3. Inward focused-attention meditation: Use a chant, a prayer, a peaceful memory, a song, or another item to distract attention from the source of fear.
  4. Muscle relaxation: Relax the muscles and avoid trying to move or control breathing.

However, people need to discuss any new treatment approaches with a doctor before trying them.

Here are answers to common questions about sleep paralysis and narcolepsy.

Should you wake a person in sleep paralysis?

A person with sleep paralysis is already awake and conscious — it is only their body that cannot move. If you know the individual is prone to sleep paralysis, you can reassure them that everything is all right and there is nothing to fear.

Should you wake a person with narcolepsy?

It will not harm a person with narcolepsy if someone wakes them up from sleep, but it may be difficult. On waking, they may be confused.

Sleep paralysis and narcolepsy are both sleep disorders. Sleep paralysis can occur in narcolepsy, but it can also occur on its own.

A person with sleep paralysis temporarily cannot move their body, speak, or open their eyes when waking, even though their mind is awake and conscious. They may also have frightening hallucinations.

A sleep paralysis episode can lead to severe distress and anxiety, but they are not uncommon. A regular sleep routine, getting enough sleep, and other coping strategies may help. For those with narcolepsy, certain medications may reduce this symptom.

Anyone who feels distressed by sleep paralysis can speak with a doctor for an evaluation.