What is Sleep Paralysis?

Jonathan Warren

Author: Jonathan Warren



What is Sleep Paralysis?

Most of us see our beds as a sanctuary: somewhere to rest and recharge after a long day. For individuals affected with sleep paralysis, however, going to bed can be a frightening experience. Recent research has found that 7.6 percent of the general population are affected with this sleep related condition named sleep paralysis, which tends to occur either when the individual is drifting off to sleep or upon waking.

Sleep paralysis can be a scary experience; whether you have experienced this once or twice or you have regular episodes, the chances are you are looking for ways to prevent it. Read on to discover the most common sleep paralysis symptoms, what causes the sleep disorder and the steps you can take to treat it.

Common sleep paralysis symptoms  

Sleep paralysis is defined as a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when waking up or falling asleep, and it is essentially what happens when your mind wakes up before your body.

When you experience sleep paralysis, you are unable move your legs, arms, head or eyes. This experience can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes at a time and it can be a truly unsettling experience to endure.

Common sleep paralysis symptoms include the following:

  1. Waking up not being able to move. This is one of the most frightening aspects of the sleep disorder - while experiencing sleep paralysis, your body is paralysed, and you are unable to move. Motor activity is inhibited during an episode of sleep paralysis which can result in feeling helpless or panicked   
  2. An inability to speak. A person who is experiencing sleep paralysis is unable to call out for help. However, being spoken to during an episode can often break the spell.
  3. Pressure or choking sensations. Another scary symptom of sleep paralysis includes difficulty breathing or a feeling of pressure being applied to the throat or chest area. Many people report feeling pinned down by an unseen force.  
  4. Hallucinations. While sleep paralysis isn’t a life-threatening condition, one of the more disturbing symptoms is hallucinations that can allow you to believe you are in danger even when you are not. Many people who experience sleep paralysis believe they see and hear unusual things, often of a paranormal nature
  5. Floating. Many people who suffer from this sleep condition report feeling like they are flying or floating above their body or report an out of body experience
  6. Feeling there is an unfriendly presence close by. Perhaps the most terrifying symptom of sleep paralysis is the sense that there is a malicious presence in the room - often a shadowy figure or silhouette that signifies danger. Understandably, this can cause a feeling of fear or dread

What causes sleep paralysis?  

During REM sleep, the muscles in the body are paralysed. This is a normal process and it is believed this may have evolved to stop the body acting out their dreams and getting into dangerous situations while asleep.

Sleep paralysis occurs when you are awoken during this stage of sleep, but your body is still under paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when the REM stage of sleep is disturbed, typically as you are waking up or falling asleep. Although your mind is fully awake, you are unable to move your body and you may experience difficulty breathing. A natural response to sleep paralysis is to try and call out for help but being unable to – an experience most find terrifying.

There is no one trigger that causes sleep paralysis but there has has been a link between sleep paralysis and panic disorder, as well as anxiety and stress. You are also more likely to be prone to sleep paralysis dreams if you are sleep deprived, jet lagged or if you sleep on your back.

Sleep paralysis can also be related to a pre-existing medical condition. Research shows that the probability of experiencing sleep paralysis symptoms is higher in those who suffer from sleep disorders such as Narcolepsy and psychiatric disorders such as Bipolar disorder or depression. It affects people of all ages and genders, but is more common in teenagers and young adults and it is often outgrown by adulthood.

Is There a sleep paralysis cure?

Although the sleeping disorder usually only lasts for a few seconds and is not dangerous, it can have a negative impact on an individual’s quality of life and the symptoms can be distressing whether they are experienced once or on a regular basis.

While there is no specific cure or treatment plan for sleep paralysis, there are several preventative measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis. Poor sleeping patterns can be linked to sleep paralysis so establishing a consistent sleep schedule, improving sleep hygiene and reducing bedtime disturbances can minimise the frequency of episodes.

Taking steps to reduce stress levels, or identifying and addressing any mental health issues you have with a GP, may also help

So, there you have it, a run down of the most common symptoms of sleep paralysis and how to treat them. Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Have you found a sleep paralysis cure? Let us know on Twitter.