What Is Sleep Paralysis, and How Can You Prevent It?
It is estimated that up to 60% of all people will experience sleep paralysis at some point during their lives. It is by far the most common sleep disorder and can also be one of the most terrifying.
In popular culture, sleep paralysis is often associated with hauntings and other supernatural events, though there is some evidence suggesting that the lore surrounding sleep paralysis stems from the very real symptoms that are associated with this disorder.
What many people think is a ghost or spirit attacking them, pressing down on their chest, and paralyzing them is actually simply sleep paralysis. But what exactly is it? What are the signs and symptoms? Are there any treatments that can help those that regularly battle this issue?
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night, been fully conscious, but have also been unable to move, you have probably experienced sleep paralysis. You are awake, technically, but your body isn’t.
It is a stage between being fully awake and fully asleep, your mind is awake, but the body is still at a stage of relaxation where you cannot use your muscles. During this time, you may not be able to speak and until you either fall back asleep or wake up fully, you will not be able to move your limbs—this is what makes sleep paralysis so scary.
Some people will only experience sleep paralysis once or twice during their lifetimes. Some may never experience it. Others will regularly wake up with a feeling of pressure on their chest and an inability to move. Many who experience this regularly may also have hallucinations, leading to some believing that they are actually being pinned down by a demon, which you may or may not find plausible, depending on your beliefs.
As scary as sleep paralysis is, it is ultimately not dangerous. If your fear comes only from being unable to move your body, and not from a hallucination, understanding the reality of sleep paralysis and what you can do to calm yourself or combat the paralysis can be helpful.
Related Sleep Disorders
One of the most common sleep disorders that is paired with paralysis is night terrors. While most people associate night terrors with fitful, terrifying dreams, they may also result in a person waking up in a state of sleep paralysis.
Researchers who surveyed women who experience sleep paralysis found that those who have a combination of paralysis and night terrors were more likely to experience hallucinations while paralyzed.
Some people may also have a period of disassociation from their bodies. They may feel like they are disconnected or floating above their bodies. Others experience a sensation of falling or floating in water. In many cases, those who have these sensations also feel threatened, afraid, or confused during their periods of sleep paralysis.
Many who do believe in the supernatural will associate these experiences with those supernatural beliefs. Again, take that as you will. If you believe in the supernatural, you may also believe that it is possible that some of these cases are the work of entities. If you do not believe, all may be attributed to real sleep paralysis and the symptoms that come along with it.
Common Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis
These symptoms though not life-threatening in most cases, can certainly feel quite serious. Some of the more commonly reported symptoms include:
- Being consciously aware during the REM sleep cycle.
- Sensations of being only partially awake.
- Awareness of the environment.
- Being stuck or unable to move (physical paralysis).
- An intense feeling of being held down or suffocated.
- Feeling an intense fear.
- The feeling of an evil presence.
- Visions or hallucinations of otherworldly beings.
- Out-of-body experiences.
The most common symptom is also the most obvious: physical paralysis. How long it lasts and what exactly it feels like will vary from person to person, but even if it lasts only a minute, it can still be frightening, especially for those who have never experienced it before.
Another common symptom is feeling pressure on the chest or even feeling like you are choking. This will only amp up the fear of the person experiencing it, even though internally panicking is not likely to help the outward fear and paralysis.
Most people feel awake and know that they are awake. Most people can and will feel fear and even paralysis while dreaming, but most people are also capable of knowing when they are in a dream and when they are experiencing something in reality.
Those who experience sleep paralysis, almost across the board, understand that they are both awake and yet, are unable to move. They can see their environment and it looks, and, more importantly, feels real. There is none of the strangeness that accompanies even realistic dreams.
Real feelings of dread and fear are symptoms of sleep paralysis. While not everyone will experience these symptoms, the majority of those who wake up to find themselves paralyzed do. These feelings can be extremely intense and can later be very difficult to describe, especially to someone who has never experienced sleep paralysis of any kind.
Even feeling that there is something else in the room with you is a documented symptom of sleep paralysis—this is not just something that those who believe in the supernatural have felt, it is something that many people feel. Rarely, there are other symptoms like smelling, seeing, or hearing things that are not actually there.
Sleep Paralysis and Sleep Cycles
Sleep paralysis is a condition of the body and brain where one gets stuck between stages of sleep and may become aware before the brain signals to the body to come out of paralytic state that occurs during dreaming.
It is important to understand the cycles of sleep in order to get a full understanding of sleep paralysis causes. When we fall asleep our bodies and brains go through four stages of sleep. Three of the four states of sleep are non-REM and the final is the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage. These four stages make up a single sleep cycle:
Stage 1: Light Slumber
Stage one is a 5 to 10-minute cycle when the eyes are closed and the sleeper is experiencing a light slumber.
Stage 2: First Actual Sleep Stage in NREM
Stage two is when the sleeper has been in the light sleep cycle long enough for his or her heart rate to slow and the body temperature to drop. This is a preparation phase as the body is nearing the deep sleep state.
Stage 3: Deep NREM Sleep
Stage three is where the body falls into a deep sleep state. During this stage, the sleeper is harder to awaken, and if sleep is disturbed, during this state the sleeper I feel foggy or confused.
These three states of NREM sleep are important to the body, as this is when they body sets about repairing and restoring the immune system, building strong healthy bones and developing or regrowing important tissue that one needs to stay healthy. As we get older, there is a change in the way that we sleep, which can have a significant impact on our overall health.
Studies show that though we need the same substantial amount of sleep that we enjoyed when we were younger as we age our sleep cycles begin to become shorter. This means our bodies aren’t afforded the same amount of deep sleep that allows our bodies to regenerate and heal at the same rate.
One might say that NREM sleep is for the body what REM sleep is for the mind. To better understand this we must investigate the last stage of a cycle of sleep, called REM. Though it takes the body around 90 minutes to cycle through stage one through stage three, the first cycle of REM sleep typically lasts only 10. Though the stage will increase as the night proceeds the REM stage usually does not exceed one hour.
Stage 4: REM Sleep
Stage Four is REM sleep and is responsible for allowing the sleeper to experience intense dreams as this is when the brain is more active. In contrast, it is also when the brain triggers the body to become inactive or paralyzed so that the sleeper does not act out his or her dreams. It is in this state during sleep that we are most likely to experience sleep paralysis.
Causes of Sleep Paralysis
After gathering a variety of test subjects and asking them to recollect their personal sleep paralysis stories, the researchers at the All Saints University School of Medicine reported that sleep paralysis was more prevalent in minority cultures than that of Caucasian cultures. In addition, though the cause may not be entirely understood they were able to conclude that there were some contributing factors that could be identified, such as:
- Sleep deprivation
- Changes in sleep habits
- Changes in work shifts
- Late night studying
All of these factors were prevalent themes of many who had experienced sleep paralysis. Leading researchers to conclude that sleep-related transitions can be like a petri dish for this sleep disorder to thrive.
Another common thread among those who were studied shows that other factors were also responsible for creating an experience. The causes were widely varied and included medical conditions such as:
- Sleep Apnea
But that is not all, further studies showed a connection between sleep apnea and certain medications. As you can see there are a multitude of contributors to sleep paralysis. In fact, sleep paralysis can run in families; It can be hereditary.
Prevention and Treatment of Sleep Paralysis
Many researchers and doctors theorize that sleep paralysis is a symptom of a larger sleep disorder. It indicates that the mind and the body are not on the same page when it comes to the sleep cycle. Getting the body back on that more normal sleep cycle often helps to lessen or even eliminate this issue. What are some of the suggestions professional give for those looking to prevent or treat their sleep paralysis? Here are a few that might work, especially if you only occasionally experience paralysis.
First, avoid drinking caffeine after two in the afternoon. Caffeine can seriously disrupt your sleep schedule and can make it difficult for your body and mind to calm down enough to get a good night’s sleep.
Also, avoid smoking, chewing tobacco, alcohol, and anything else that is known to stimulate the body or disrupt sleep. Keeping any screens,—from desktops to laptops to tablets to smartphones—out of the bedroom will also prevent the mind from being woken up by sounds and lights.
In addition, it is thought that age can be a factor in the experience of sleep paralysis.
If you find that you are prone to sleep paralysis, there are things you can do to help lesson the likely hood of experiencing them. The most important is making sure you get an ample amount of rest which may mean planning ahead and being prepared for adjustments that may necessary due to shifts in your normal sleep routine.
Sleep deprivation is often related to sleep paralysis, and because of the fear that often comes along with sleep paralysis, the two can work in a vicious circle, turning you into an insomniac. If your experiences with sleep paralysis are starting to ramp up, it may be because you are becoming more and more sleep deprived. In this instance, it may be necessary to take real steps to start improving your sleep schedule.
One of these steps might be to meet with a doctor or a naturalist who can help you find something to take temporarily for your sleep issues. Any other physical disorders that may be waking you up during the night should also be dealt with.
As a final note, it is important to remember that while sleep paralysis can be frightening, it is not dangerous. Analytically thinking about the situation as it is happening to you can prevent the distress, fear, and dread that often accompanies this condition.
Have You Ever Experienced Sleep Paralysis?
- Olunu E., Kimo R., et al. (2018). Sleep Paralysis, a Medical Condition with a Diverse Cultural Interpretation. International Journal of Applied Basic Medical Research, 2018, Jul-Sep; 8(3): 137–142.
- Denis D. (2018). Relationships between sleep paralysis and sleep quality: current insights. Nature and Science of Sleep, 2018, 10, 355–367.
- Evans R.W., French C. (2008). Ask the Brains: What Is Sleep Paralysis. Scientific American Mind, 2008, 19, 6, 86.
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.
© 2019 Sam Shepards