Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
If you’ve ever awoken only to find that you couldn’t move your body, you have experienced a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is the feeling of being conscious or awake but being unable to move any part of your body. It can happen as you are waking up or as you are falling asleep. In the majority of cases, sleep paralysis occurs when your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds or up to a few minutes.
In some people, sleep paralysis may be accompanied by a feeling of pressure against the chest or a sense of choking. Some people also report a sensation that someone or something is in the room with them during episodes of sleep paralysis. These symptoms that sometimes accompany sleep paralysis have inspired many myths linking the phenomenon to paranormal or other worldly explanations. In reality, sleep paralysis is simply the process of your brain waking up from sleep slightly before your body awakens.
Your body naturally becomes “paralyzed” every night while you sleep. Sleep paralysis episodes occur when you become aware of this process. A more accurate term for the sleep paralysis phenomenon might be “awareness during sleep paralysis.”
While sleep paralysis is rarely linked to underlying psychiatric problems, it may accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea. Sleep paralysis may also be more prevalent in people with poor sleep schedules or other underlying health problems.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis can occur as you're falling asleep or as you're waking up. When sleep paralysis occurs as you are falling asleep, it is known as hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. When it happens as you are waking up, it is referred to as hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.
As you begin to fall asleep, your body slowly relaxes, and you usually become less aware of your surroundings. As you begin to enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your body essentially shuts itself down to prevent you from acting out your dreams and hurting yourself. Sometimes you remain aware or become aware as you are entering REM sleep, however. If this happens, you may notice that you cannot move or speak, resulting in hypnagogic sleep paralysis.
Hypnopompic sleep paralysis is also a result of the normal REM sleep process. While you are asleep, your body cycles between REM and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. Each REM/NREM cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and last up to 75% of your overall sleep time. During this part of the sleep cycle, your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of the NREM stage, your body switches to REM sleep. During this stage, your eyes move quickly, and dreams occur. Your body remains very relaxed and your muscles are "turned off" during this stage to prevent you from acting out your dreams and injuring yourself (if this normal part of your sleep cycle does not happen, you may experience sleepwalking). If you begin to awaken and become aware before the REM cycle has finished, you may be unable to move your body or speak.
Certain other factors can contribute to sleep paralysis, including sleeping in a supine position (sleeping on your back), an irregular sleep schedule, napping throughout the day, stress, a history of panic attacks, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and sudden lifestyle changes. Lucid dreaming (dreams in which you are aware you are dreaming) may also trigger an episode of sleep paralysis if you attempt to wake yourself up before the dream has finished.
What Should You Do if You Experience Sleep Paralysis?
If you experience sleep paralysis, the best thing to do is to remain calm and remember that you are in no real danger and try not to panic while you wait it out. Remember that it is simply a natural process your body goes through to protect itself from injury during sleep.
You may also want to try to gently move your hand or foot in an attempt to break free of the paralysis more quickly. Try to relax and remain calm, remembering that this is a natural phenomenon.
There isn’t much you can do while experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis other than trying to remain calm. While it is happening, tell yourself that it will pass soon and that it isn’t dangerous. If you experience feelings that someone or something is in the room with you, or if you feel pressure against your chest, remind yourself that it is only your mind playing tricks on you. Nothing is there, and you are in no real danger. It will soon pass.
How to Prevent Future Sleep Paralysis Episodes
Even with the understanding that sleep paralysis is not dangerous and is simply a part of the natural sleep cycle, many people become fearful or anxious while experiencing a sleep paralysis episode. If you are afraid of experiencing another episode of sleep paralysis in the future, there are a few things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a recurring episode.
To minimize the possibility of experiencing another episode of sleep paralysis, it is important to get enough sleep each night, take necessary steps to reduce stress, exercise regularly, and keep a regular sleep schedule. Improve your sleep habits by being sure to get six to eight hours of sleep each night and stick to a regular bedtime.
If you have an underlying condition, such as a mental health or sleeping disorder, it is important to follow your treatment plan. The use of antidepressants, if prescribed by your doctor, may help to alleviate instances of sleep paralysis. If you continue to have episodes of sleep paralysis, you may wish to consult a sleep specialist to find out if you have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, that may be contributing your frequent bouts of sleep paralysis.
Sleep Paralysis: Nothing to Fear
Sleep paralysis can be a scary experience, especially if you don’t understand what is happening. Though it can be frightening, sleep paralysis is part of the normal sleep cycle. Though certain medical and neurological conditions can make awareness during sleep paralysis more likely, sleep paralysis in and of itself is usually nothing to worry about. If you experience awareness during sleep paralysis, you can reduce your discomfort and fear by remaining calm as you wait it out. Each episode usually only lasts a few minutes.
If you find that sleep paralysis episodes are becoming too frequent for you, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of experiencing it again in the future, including improving your sleep schedule, reducing stress in your life, and exercising regularly. Sleep paralysis doesn’t have to be something you fear each night when you go to bed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on July 03, 2018:
I've never experienced that but I did have an experience where I was walking and blacked out, fell unmoving for a time long enough that a cut, I didn't know was there before the fall, left a small pool of blood below and a knot had risen on my forehead upon awakening. As I awoke I felt every bone in my body riffled from head to toe, I could turned my head and spoke but the rest of my body was paralyzed until I got someone to remove the package I was carrying. I don't believe that is related to Sleep Paralysis but I wonder what it could have been.
That's interesting information I will send to a friend who has spoken about sleep walking in his past.