We all get nightmares, whether it’s being chased by an angry mob or getting a big red ‘F’ on an exam we didn’t even have to do. However, the good thing is that we wake up from them. People who struggle with sleep paralysis don’t have this luxury. Sleep paralysis is when you’re temporarily unable to move or speak when you’re waking up or falling asleep. You’re awake, but you have no control over your body. It’s not harmful and it should pass after a few seconds or minutes,1 but it can be frightening, and people can find it haunting. It’s understandable that it would make you reluctant to go back to sleep, but the less you sleep, the greater the risk that you’ll experience sleep paralysis. However, the good news is that there are ways for you to lessen this risk, and get a good, peaceful sleep.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis occurs in the time between waking and sleep, either just after you’ve fallen asleep or upon waking up in the morning. People may feel as if there’s a pressure on their chest, or as if they’re choking, and could feel intense fear.2 These ‘episodes’ are often accompanied by visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations, which usually fall into one of three categories:
- Intruder: there are sounds of door handles turning, shuffling footsteps, a shadow man, or a sense of a threatening presence in the room.
- Incubus: feelings of pressure on the chest, difficulty breathing with the sense of being smothered, strangled, or assaulted – the person believes that they’re about to die.
- Vestibular-motor: a sense of spinning, falling, floating, flying, hovering over your body, or another type of outer-body experience.
Although many people can have sleep paralysis once or twice in their life, others can experience it a few times a month or more, and it’s most common in teenagers and young adults.3
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis happens when parts of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep occur when you’re awake. REM is a stage of sleep when your brain is very active, and dreams often occur. The body is unable to move, apart from the eyes and muscles used for breathing. This is possibly to stop you from acting your dreams and hurting yourself. It’s not yet known why REM sleep can sometimes happen when you’re awake, but it’s been linked with:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Irregular sleep patterns (e.g. due to shift work or jet lag)
- Family history of sleep paralysis
- Sleeping on your back
While sleep paralysis is usually a one-off or very occasional thing, it can be a symptom of depression, sleep apnoea, and anxiety.4 As these problems are serious contributes to poor sleep and mental health, read more about them in our articles, ‘Sleeping with Depression‘, ‘Sleeping with Anxiety‘, and our article that explores Sleep Apnoea.
It’s also thought that sleep paralysis could be a sign of narcolepsy, a rare brain disorder that causes a person to unexpectantly fall asleep or lose muscle control at inappropriate times.6 Read more about the condition in our article here.
What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis?
The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being completely aware of your surroundings but temporarily unable to move or talk.7 Symptoms can also include:
- Being consciously awake
- Hallucinations and sensations that cause fear
- Feeling pressure on the chest
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling as if you’re going to die
- Headaches, muscle pains, and paranoia
The ‘episode’ may only last a few seconds or minutes, and you’ll speak and move normally afterwards. However, you may feel unsettled and anxious about going to sleep again, and this can cause longer term problems, like sleep disorders. Find out more about sleep disorders, and how to help them, in our article, ‘Common Sleep Disorders‘.
Should You See A Doctor?
While sleep paralysis itself is not considered a medical condition,8 it would still be good to see a doctor if the symptoms are concerning you. Consulting your doctor is especially a good idea if you’re experiencing sleep paralysis regularly, feeling anxious about going to sleep, or if you have narcolepsy. If you are stressed and anxious about sleeping, this will prevent you from getting a good sleep. This can be more negative for your health than sleep paralysis itself, so talking to your doctor is always the best way to help yourself. Your doctor will also be able to determine if there is an underlying problem causing sleep paralysis, like a sleeping disorder.
Tips for A Better Sleep
There are no specific treatments for sleep paralysis but improving your sleeping habits and sleep hygiene will help to reduce the likelihood of experiencing it. We’ve gathered some ideas for how you can help yourself get a better snooze.
Keep a regular bedtime. Going to bed at the same time each night, and waking up at the same time every morning, will help you get the hours of sleep you need. It’s important that you’re consistent with this, even on weekends and holidays.
Have a healthy sleeping environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. You should also check that your mattress is comfortable. If it’s lumpy and old, it may not be providing the support you need for a restful sleep. Browse our selection of mattresses here.
Reduce light exposure in the evenings. Limiting how much light you’re surrounded by in the evenings will help to regulate your circadian rhythm, or inner body clock. Your circadian rhythm runs in the background of your brain and determines when it’s time to be alert or sleepy. It’s influenced by light; when the sun is up, you should be too. So, when the sun goes down, your body knows that it’s time to start thinking about sleep. In the evenings, avoid turning on bright lights, and instead switch on table lamps for a more subtle atmosphere. Keeping your circadian rhythm stable will help you get a good sleep, so it’s also a good idea to get good daylight exposure during the day. Read more about your circadian rhythm here.
Only sleep in your bed. Don’t do any work or studying in bed – your brain will associate your bed with this, and it’ll become the last place you want to relax.
Think about your diet. Don’t eat heavy meals late in the evening, and don’t eat within two hours of your bedtime.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Caffeine can help you feel alert first thing in the morning, but drinking it during the day will leave you too awake to sleep properly at night-time. Drinking alcohol later in the evening will also prevent you from getting a deep sleep, and it can lower the quality of your sleep, too.
Avoid screens before going to bed. Don’t use your TV, tablet, laptop, or mobile phone during the hour before you go to sleep. These screens emit a blue light that disrupts the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. So, if you keep away from these screens, your melatonin levels are not harmed, and you’ll fall asleep easier.
Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. Avoid stimulants like coffee, chocolate, and nicotine before going to sleep. Read a book for an hour before going to sleep. Doing something relaxing for bed will help your body relax enough to fall asleep easier. Be consistent with this routine – your brain will come to associate it with sleep.
Consider meditation. Meditating is a great way to encourage your body to slow down and relax. Focus on your breathing – slowly take a deep breath in, and slowly exhale. You can also visualise a peaceful scene, like a deserted beach. Read more about meditation in our article here.
Don’t sleep on your back. It’s thought that sleeping on your back can increase the chances of sleep paralysis,9 so, if you can, sleep on your side instead. If you’re used to sleeping on your back, it’ll take a bit of time for you to get used to a new sleeping position. Giving yourself time to get used to this is key, so be patient with it. Sleeping on your front is an alternative, but this can be less comfortable for some.