Sleep paralysis: Causes, symptoms and how to cope

Sleep paralysis: Causes, symptoms and how to copeSleep paralysis can be a terrifying state of consciousness; not only can you not move your body, but it is often accompanied with scary hallucinations. Sleep paralysis is when the body is unable to move smoothly through the different sleep cycles and the inability to move while fully conscious. It commonly occurs during the transition between wakefulness and sleep. Sleep paralysis may result from other sleep disorders but rarely is it caused by an underlying psychiatric condition.

When does sleep paralysis occur? The REM connection

Sleep paralysis can occur in the transition from wakefulness to sleep or from sleep into wakefulness – these are known as hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis and hypnopompic sleep paralysis. Hypnagogic is the process where your body relaxes to enter sleep. Normally you begin to lose awareness during this time, but with sleep paralysis you may still keep consciousness, and thus you will be aware that you cannot move or speak.


Hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs during the transitions of the REM sleep phase (rapid eye movement). When we sleep we go through a few REM sleep phases typically lasting up to 90 minutes. This is when relaxation and restoration of the body occurs. Your eyes move rapidly and this is where your dreams take place. If you become aware that you are in the REM phase, once again you may notice that you cannot move or speak.

General causes for sleep paralysis

Both men and women can experience sleep paralysis and in fact it may run in some families. Factors that may contribute to sleep paralysis include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Changes in sleep schedule
  • Mental conditions like bipolar
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy
  • Use of certain medications
  • Substance abuse

Are there any symptoms of sleep paralysis?

Symptoms associated with sleep paralysis include the inability to move or speak, feeling a weight on the chest or a choking feeling, and sometimes hallucinations.

What makes sleep paralysis scary?

Sleep paralysis can be scary for the simple fact that you are unable to move your body or speak in the darkness of your room. Historically speaking, sleep paralysis has often been associated with a demon that sits on your chest, not only immobilizing you, but causing chest pressure, which so many individuals feel when they suffer from sleep paralysis. Worse yet, hallucinations can occur, creating a larger sense of fear and a lack of control.

How to cope with sleep paralysis

Although terrifying, sleep paralysis can be coped with by following these easy steps.

Recognize the symptoms

When a person is unaware of the symptoms of sleep paralysis – or the inability to move or speak – they can become more terrified because they do not understand what is going on. If a person can recognize the symptoms and accept them while it is occurring, they can better ease their mind.

What to do during sleep paralysis

  • Focus on movement
  • Focus on eye movements
  • Focus on breathing
  • Imagine yourself moving


Treat the symptoms

  • Sleep regularly
  • Sleep on your side
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy
  • Relax and decrease stress
  • See a doctor – your sleep paralysis may be a symptom of narcolepsy

Further preemptive treatments

  • Talk about the condition with your friends
  • Keep a log
  • Identify triggers
  • Avoid triggers

Lastly, try not to believe in the supernatural. A Canadian study, which observed those with sleep paralysis, found that those who had strong beliefs in the supernatural were more likely to be scared and frightened.


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