Sleep paralysis refers to the sensation of being unable to move at the onset of sleep or when waking despite being mentally awake. This condition can be frightening and disorienting and may be accompanied by hallucinations, the feeling of suffocation, a lowered heart rate, and feeling as though you are being dragged around.
Continue reading to learn what causes sleep paralysis, whether sleep paralysis is dangerous or not, who is most often affected by sleep paralysis, and how to prevent it from occurring.
While sleep paralysis can be terrifying, it is most often not a sign of anything dangerous. Normally, the sensation occurs if your body is not transitioning through the stages of sleep smoothly, and it is not attributed to any underlying medical condition.
Sleep paralysis most commonly occurs either while you are falling asleep or while you are waking up. If you experience it as you fall asleep, it is referred to hypnagogic sleep paralysis. Hypnagogic sleep paralysis occurs if you become aware of your body relaxing and falling into sleep and you may notice that you are unable to move or speak.
Hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs when you become aware before REM sleep has fully finished. REM sleep is when dreams occur, and while your eyes may move quickly, the rest of your body and muscles are effectively “turned off,” meaning that if you become aware during this time, you may not be able to move or speak.
As many as four of every ten people may experience sleep paralysis, and it is often first noticed as a teenager. Men and women may develop sleep paralysis at any age, though their risk is increased if there is a family history of the disorder. Your risk of sleep paralysis may also be higher if you’re lacking sleep or your sleep schedule changes often, if you have mental conditions like stress or bipolar disorder, if you have other sleeping disorders such as narcolepsy, and if you sleep on your back or use certain medication like the ones used to treat ADHD. Also, those with substance abuse issues are more likely to suffer from sleep paralysis.
While the condition is not dangerous, it is unpleasant and many would rather avoid experiencing it altogether. To prevent sleep paralysis, try one or more of the tips listed below.
Sleep on your side: Sleeping on your back can increase your likelihood of suffering from sleep paralysis, so it is recommended that you try to sleep on your side. Placing a tennis ball in your back pocket while you sleep may prevent you from falling asleep on you back or rolling over into this position.
Watch what you eat before bed: Cut back on the night-caps and avoid eating a heavy meal before heading to bed, as alcohol and foods full of fats, proteins, and sugars can disrupt the sleep cycle and make you more prone to sleep paralysis.
Avoid electronics: Exposure to screens such as cellphones, computers, and televisions before bed has been linked to a higher risk of experiencing sleep disruptions.
Get more sleep: If you are not sleeping for more than seven hours in a 24 hour day, you are most likely depriving yourself of REM sleep, causing disruptions in your sleep cycle that can result in sleep paralysis. Similarly, a set sleeping routine—whether it includes sleeping eight hours through the night or napping throughout the day— is important to help regulate your circadian rhythm and decrease your risk of experiencing sleep disruptions.
Record your nightmares: Journaling your sleep paralysis experiences and nightmares can help you acknowledge any patterns that develop and which prevention strategies work best for you.
If you suffer from sleep paralysis frequently, there are some strategies that may help you break the sensation and restore your ability to move. Some of these strategies are:
Surrender: If you feel as though you are being held down, trying to fight the sensation may only worsen it as it can increase your emotional response. Try to relax and repeat an affirmation in your head that recognizes your condition, such as “this is only sleep paralysis, I am ok.” You may also want to visualize going with the pressure rather than resisting it—for example, if you feel as though you are being pressed into the mattress, allow yourself to be pulled down that way.
Move an extremity: While trying to sit up during sleep paralysis can be extremely difficult, focusing your effort on a small movement such as wiggling your toe or clenching your fist may break the paralysis. Similarly, you can try to scrunch your face like you’ve smelt something foul and repeat the motion a few times to break the paralysis.
Focus on breathing: Practice mindful breathing when you are experiencing sleep paralysis to help keep you in a calm state while you wait for it to break. The panic associated with the feeling of pressure on your chest may induce hyperventilation or cause you to forget to breathe properly, so remembering to control your breathing.
Make noise: While some may not be able to speak during sleep paralysis, focusing on your throat and trying to utter a single word may be possible. This is especially useful if you share your bed with someone, as they will be able to help you wake fully. Alternatively, you can try to force yourself to cough to either jar yourself out of the paralysis or alert your bedmate of your distress.
Sleep paralysis is a condition that is frightening yet harmless. The inability to move and hallucinations experienced are normally caused by interruptions in your sleep cycle and may be prevented by regulating your sleep cycle and adjusting your sleeping position. You may be able to break sleep paralysis by trying to wiggle your toes or clench your fist, though the best way to prevent this phenomenon is to keep a journal of when it occurs and what strategies are successful in stopping it so you may observe any patterns and potentially determine what triggers it.