What is Sleep Paralysis & How Can You Stop It?
It can be a terrifying feeling, unable to move, but awake and fully aware of your surroundings. In some cases, people feel there’s another presence in the room. This can also be accompanied by ‘sleep demons’1 and can be incredibly frightening, until you manage to drift off to sleep or able to move again.
While most people will only get sleep paralysis once or twice in their life2, it can be scary and something many are keen to prevent. So, what is sleep paralysis, and how can you stop it? Let’s take a closer look at everything you need to know.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is the feeling of being conscious, while also unable to move3 or speak as you are waking up or falling asleep. It’s also a type of parasomnia, which are abnormal behaviours during sleep. It’s also linked to the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle, so it can be considered REM parasomnia.
REM sleep happens around 90 minutes after you fall asleep and is when your brain is more active4. For this reason, usually, REM sleep involves vivid dreaming as well as atonia (this helps prevent acting out dreams). However, in most circumstances, atonia ends when you wake up, so a person never becomes conscious of their inability to move.
What does sleep paralysis feel like?
It can be different for everyone, but often feels like:
- Being awake but unable to:
- Open your eyes
- Someone is pushing you down/pressure
- Someone is in your room
- A sense of choking
It can also last up to several minutes, and be accompanied by a feeling of terror. However, it’s important to remember it’s harmless, and likely won’t happen every night.
When does it happen?
In most cases, sleep paralysis only occurs 1-2 times. It can occur when you’re falling asleep, or waking up. If it’s the former, it’s called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. If it’s the latter, it’s known as hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.
Hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis
Your body relaxes as you fall asleep, and you usually become less aware at the same time. However, if you remain aware, you might notice you’re unable to move or speak.
Hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis
Your muscles ‘turn off’ during REM sleep. If you become aware before the REM cycle finishes, you may notice that you can’t move or speak.
What causes sleep paralysis?
The exact cause is still unknown, as research has found multiple factors. However, these tend to be correlations, rather than causations, and further research is necessary to better understand them.
Other sleep problems
Sleep disorders and problems, such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea, have shown a strong correlation5. Narcolepsy causes people to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times6, while sleep apnoea is when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep7. Sleep therapy can help some individuals suffering.
It’s also been found to be more common in people with nighttime leg cramps.
Insomnia symptoms, or having a tough time falling or staying asleep, are also associated with sleep paralysis. This also applies to excessive daytime sleepiness, or those whose circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycle) are out of alignment are also at a higher risk. This could be those who work night shifts or have jet lag, for example.
Those with a family history of the condition may also be more likely to develop it, however, no specific genetic basis has been identified.
Other risk factors
Other risk factors that make it more likely to occur include:
- Sleeping on your back
- Substance abuse
- Use of certain medications
- High blood pressure
How to stop sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis is not a serious issue, and usually doesn’t happen often enough to cause serious health conditions. Despite this, it can be distressing and cause anxiety that makes it hard to sleep. Sleep deprivation comes with its own set of problems, such as irritability. For this reason, it’s understandable why many would try to prevent it. Here are some ways to do that:
Try and find ways to cope during an episode, by relaxing both your mind and body before bed. Try to remind yourself the episode will pass, and won’t do any harm to your body8.
Try to find better ways to manage stress day to day, some tips include:
- Exercising regularly, e.g. yoga
- Talking openly about your stress with colleagues, friends or family
- Getting out in the sunlight
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
- Setting a sleep schedule
- Avoid electronics 30-60 minutes before bed9
Getting therapy, or speaking to a doctor, can also help, particularly if you’re suffering from any mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.
Taking care of your health
Looking after your physical health e.g. eating well and working out regularly, can also help. Since high blood pressure has been linked to sleep paralysis, this may reduce your risk.
Sleep paralysis is somewhat of a mystery, however, it’s important to remind yourself that it isn’t harmful and episodes will pass. There are ways to reduce your risk, and ensure that if an episode does happen, it’s less terrifying. Make yourself, and your health, a priority and you should start to see the benefits.
- What You Should Know About Sleep Paralysis and ‘Sleep Demons’ – Cleveland Clinic
- Sleep paralysis – NHS
- Sleep Paralysis – WebMD
- What Are REM and Non-REM Sleep? – WebMD
- What You Should Know About Sleep Paralysis – Sleep Foundation
- Narcolepsy – NHS
- Sleep apnoea – NHS
- How to Stop Sleep Paralysis For Good – The Sleep Doctor
- Ways to Manage Stress – WebMD