Sleep Education & Tips

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

    Sleep paralysis is defined as “the temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up.” It is often accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations or the feeling of suffocating, and usually lasts anywhere from several seconds to minutes.

Sleep paralysis is, arguably, one of the more mysterious (and often frightening) aspects of our sleep. While being relatively common, there hasn’t been much research dedicated to sleep paralysis, defined as “the temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up.” It is often accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations or the feeling of suffocating, and usually lasts anywhere from several seconds to minutes.

How does it happen?

The paralysis of the body is a normal part of REM sleep. During this sleep phase, we are usually having our most vivid and emotional dreams, while our brain keeps our body in a motionless state to stop us from acting out these dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when we begin to wake up and become aware of our surroundings while our body is still operating under the aforementioned state of REM paralysis, resulting in a feeling of being “trapped” in our own body.

What causes sleep paralysis?

About 8% of the general population experiences sleep paralysis at some point in their lives; this number is higher in students and psychiatric patients. While specific causes for the occasional bout of sleep paralysis are unclear, frequent episodes of sleep paralysis have been linked to conditions such as sleep apnea, PTSD, or narcolepsy. If you believe you may be suffering from one of these underlying disorders, you should try speaking to your doctor or being evaluated by a clinician.

Possible contributing causes for less frequent episodes have been identified as sleep deprivation, excessive alcohol consumption, fatigue, or stress/anxiety. Disrupted sleep is also correlated with sleep paralysis, as those who report disrupted sleep more than five times a month are “three times more likely to experience sleep paralysis” than those who report disrupted sleep less than five times a month. Some studies have suggested that sleep paralysis is more prevalent in adolescence, likely due to the depression and anxiety that are associated with going through a developmental phase.

Can it be treated?

Those suffering from sleep paralysis frequently may want to visit their doctor to rule out narcolepsy or sleep apnea, as these are treatable conditions. If you’re only having the occasional episode, however, there isn’t necessarily a specific treatment for sleep paralysis (yet!), but paying more attention to your sleep hygiene is a good place to start. Small steps you can take to try to reduce the frequency of episodes may look like going to bed and waking at the same time daily, reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption, or limiting screen time before bed.

Above all, it’s important to remember that when sleep paralysis occurs infrequently and is not associated with daytime symptoms, it may be frightening but is generally harmless. On the other hand, frequent episodes should be evaluated by a physician, especially if they are associated with daytime symptoms.

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references

  1. John Fakoya, A., Olunu, E., Kimo, R., Onigbinde, E., Akpanobong, M.-A., Enang, I., Osanakpo, M., Monday, I., & Otohinoyi, D. (2018). Sleep paralysis, a medical condition with a diverse cultural interpretation. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, 8(3), 137. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijabmr.ijabmr_19_18

  2. Denis, D., French, C. C., & Gregory, A. M. (2018). A systematic review of variables associated with sleep paralysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 38, 141–157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2017.05.005

  3. Sleep paralysis. (n.d.). Stanfordhealthcare.org. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sleep/nighttime-sleep-behaviors/sleep-paralysis.html

  4. Suni, E. (2020, August 6). What You Should Know about Sleep Paralysis. Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/parasomnias/sleep-paralysis

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