What is Sleep Paralysis and Can it be Prevented?

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Being awake and unable to move parts of your body is a terrifying but totally harmless experience called sleep paralysis. It’s normally not a sign of anything serious, but it can be very frightening if you don’t know what’s happening.

So before you start thinking you have some type of incurable condition, it’s important to understand what sleep paralysis is, what causes it, and how you can prevent it from happening.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia, which is an abnormal behavior or experience that occurs while falling asleep, during sleep, or upon waking up. It happens when your brain and body fall out of sync, whether that’s as you’re rising from your slumber or just about to drift off into it. Suddenly, you realize that you’re unable to move or even speak—and you don’t know why.

While it can feel like an eternity, sleep paralysis usually only lasts a few minutes before you start to regain movement and control over your body again. Sometimes, episodes end by being touched by another person or making an intense effort to move your limbs.

Normally, sleep paralysis will happen only once to a person. But some experience it more frequently.

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis can be unpleasant. The following are some of the most common symptoms people experience:

  • You feel awake, but you can’t move, speak, or open your eyes.
  • It feels like there’s a heavy weight on your chest pushing you down.
  • You get a sense that something or someone is in your room.
  • You hear or see things that are not really there, also known as hallucinations.
  • You feel a tightening around your throat and a sense of being suffocated.

Causes of Sleep Paralysis

Science can’t say for sure why sleep paralysis happens, but there are a few different things that can trigger it, including:

  • Disrupted sleeping patterns, such as jet lag or overnight shifts
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy or insomnia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic disorder
  • General anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • A change in medication
  • A family history of sleep paralysis

Diagnosis of Sleep Paralysis

A single episode of sleep paralysis is not cause for concern. But if you experience it frequently—and it’s disrupting your sleep or making you anxious—you should talk to a doctor or sleep specialist about treatment.

They’ll likely ask you about your sleep habits, family history, and any medications you’re taking. They might ask you to keep a sleep diary for several weeks to keep track of any patterns that pop up.

In some cases, you might need to undergo a sleep study (also called polysomnography) to rule out other conditions like narcolepsy. This test will record your brain waves, breathing, heartbeat, and how often your arms and legs move. It’ll also record your electrical activity levels in your muscles, which would be low during sleep paralysis.

Risk Factors of Sleep Paralysis

While sleep paralysis can affect anyone at any time, there are health conditions, demographics, and lifestyles that may be more at risk:

  • Teenagers: The average age of experiencing your first sleep paralysis episode is between 14 and 17 years old.
  • Family history: If you have a relative who’s experienced sleep paralysis, you’re more likely to experience it yourself.
  • Sleep deprivation: Lack of sleep, which is anything less than seven hours, can make you more prone to episodes.
  • An irregular sleep schedule: If when you sleep and how long you sleep changes a lot, you’re at a higher risk.
  • Mental conditions: bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorders have all been linked to an increased risk of sleep paralysis.
  • Sleep disorders: If you experience narcolepsy, insomnia, or sleep apnea, you may be at a higher risk for sleep paralysis as well.

Treatment Options

For most people, sleep paralysis goes away without any treatment. But for those who experience it often, there are a few ways to lessen the frequency and severity of episodes.

Get enough sleep

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s important to get enough sleep—which is around seven to eight hours per night for most healthy people. Make it easier to drift off to dreamland by avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, disconnecting from electronic screens, and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine.

Maintain a regular sleep schedule

If you have an irregular sleep schedule, it can make episodes of sleep paralysis more likely. Try practicing good sleep hygiene by going to bed and waking up around the same time every day, even on weekends.

Address issues with medication and stress

Sometimes, sleep paralysis can be caused by a change in medication or an underlying mental health condition like anxiety or depression. If this is the case, talk with your doctor about adjusting your dosage or trying a different medication.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also help lessen the frequency of sleep paralysis by helping you how to manage stress and anxiety.

Can Sleep Paralysis be Prevented?

Unfortunately, there are no proven methods or therapies for preventing an episode. But there  are a few things you can do to lower your risk:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene, which means avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bed and winding down with a calming bedtime routine.
  • Sleep on your side to prevent disruptions in REM sleep.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night.

Takeaway

Sleep paralysis can be concerning, but it’s usually harmless and goes away on its own. Most people experience it only once in their lifetime, but for some, it can be a recurrent problem.

If you frequently deal with sleep paralysis or are struggling to cope with episodes, talk with your doctor about possible treatments that could help.

Sources

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2020). Sleep paralysis. https://sleepeducation.org/sleep-disorders/sleep-paralysis/

Denis D, (2018). Relationships between sleep paralysis and sleep quality: Current insights [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30464663/

Farooq M, et al. (2022). Sleep paralysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562322/

Hirshkowitz M, et al. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: Methodology and results summary [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29073412/

NHS. (2022). Sleep paralysis. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleep-paralysis/