Sleep Paralysis: What Is It & Can It Cause Death?

10 Min Read | By Leigh Horan

Last Modified 13 June 2023   First Added 20 February 2019

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

What is sleep paralysis?

Linked to several sleep conditions, sleep paralysis is a liminal state between sleep and wakefulness in which a person is partly conscious but unable to move due to a loss of muscle control; occasions of sleep paralysis regularly involve hallucinations. This paralysis, though explained in various ways throughout history, is now frequently linked to REM sleep – a stage of sleep that inhibits the function of motor neurones producing REM sleep atonia.

Back in 2011, a review found that 7.6% of the world’s population will experience at least one episode in their lifetime. Although this is particularly frightening and unpleasant, it’s not harmful to your health.

Sleep paralysis definition:

A brief inability to move or speak just before falling asleep or upon awakening, often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. It may occur in any individual but is seen especially in individuals with narcolepsy and may be due to a temporary dysfunction of the reticular activating system.

Source: APA Dictionary

Hear from the sleep paralysis experts:

Join Dr Pixie as she chats with Jessica Barratt, a journalist who has had sleep paralysis for 21 years. Also joining the conversation is Hope Bastine, a sleep psychologist with a specific interest in the condition. Hope explains how the misinterpretation of light and noise can be critical in causing sleep paralysis. In contrast, Jessica gives us the lowdown on how she’s finally gone six months free from this terrifying ordeal!

Listen here on Spotify:

What causes sleep paralysis?

It’s a commonly asked question with multiple theories. And although a range of causes leads to someone experiencing it, experts haven’t yet found a clearly defined source for the cause of sleep paralysis. However, several inducing factors are:

  • Destructive sleeping patterns, such as suffering from sleep deprivation and not scheduling enough time for shut-eye.
  • An irregular sleeping pattern, such as if work night shifts or suffer from narcolepsy.
  • Poor mental health, such as stress, anxiety, depression and certain prescribed medications.
  • According to the NHS, sleeping on your back can also be linked.
  • If you are miserable, you may be one of the few genetically predisposed to experience paralysed sleep. Although, this is extremely rare and can be cured through therapy.

Sleep paralysis symptoms:

Sleep paralysis can have traumatic consequences for the sufferer. Many of those that experience sleeping paralysis have described the following sensations, either when waking up or falling asleep:

  • Being unable to move.
  • Difficulty in taking deep breaths.
  • Feelings of fear.
  • Some report an inability to move their eyes.
  • Hallucinating that there is another presence in the room.
  • Feeling like there is a weight on their chest.

When does sleep paralysis happen?

Overnight, our brain goes through several different sleep cycles, all crucial stages of sleep for the brain to rest, recover and prepare for the next day. One of these stages is REM sleep, otherwise known as Rapid Eye Movement sleep or deep sleep. During this phase, our brains send our bodies into complete paralysis to rest.

This is when things can go wrong. During this period of paralysis, you can wake up while still stuck in REM sleep. This means you can see your surroundings but not move a muscle. The person experiencing sleep paralysis may or may not hallucinate whilst ‘stuck’ in their bodies due to the terrifying nature of the experience.

Describing the sleep disorder, Dr Michael Breus says:

Most patients say the same thing to describe sleep paralysis: that it feels like you woke up dead. You know that your mind is awake and your body is not — so you’re trapped, essentially.

An episode will typically last a few seconds until your body ‘wakes up’. However, in worst-case scenarios, it can last a few minutes.

Common sleep paralysis dreams:

Due to the disconnect between your brain and body, it’s common to experience unsettling and terrifying hallucinations while in paralysis. According to Very Well Health, common hallucinations include seeing a dark figure in the room or bright flashes. Others have reported seeing animals or colours, and some have even seen a version of themselves looking back at them. That’s why this condition is often called The Demon of the Bedroom.

Why do you see scary things?

Your anxiety levels are incredibly high, as your brain cannot rationalise the experience. Sometimes you may be able to hear or see shadows, but you cannot process these properly. This leads your brain to project shapes or even images of yourself within your field of vision, which only induces more panic.

Many experts believe sleep paralysis explains paranormal experiences such as seeing ghosts at night and even UFO abductions!

Having spooky dreams? Find out what they're telling you...

Has anyone died from sleep paralysis?

The simple answer is no; sleep paralysis can’t cause death. Even though it’s incredibly scary, it’s not harmful. During our research, we found the following from The Sleep Doctor, Dr Breus:

Research has shown that sleep paralysis is not dangerous. It does not cause physical harm to the body and there are no clinical deaths known to date.

However, the stress and anxiety resulting from this parasomnia can have notable effects. If you’re struggling, speaking to your GP for further advice is recommended.

How to wake up from sleep paralysis

Unfortunately, there’s no concrete way to escape this sleeping disorder, and you must try not to panic and trust that you will wake up. However, there are some things you can try to help bring yourself out of it quicker:

  • Focus on moving one body part; experts recommend hands or feet. Try to make a fist to help bring blood flow back to your hands and give you something to concentrate on.
  • Keep your breathing steady. When you sleep, your breathing is suppressed, so it may feel like you’re suffocating during sleep paralysis. Try not to hyperventilate and keep calm as you wake up.
  • Make a plan for it. If you are a frequent sufferer, making a plan can help ground you – try counting or reciting something.
  • Don’t panic. One of the worst parts is the panic and fear, which can worsen if you fight against your body. Try to keep calm as if you are in a dream and go back to sleep.

Should you wake someone up from sleep paralysis?

Unlike sleepwalking, the general advice is to help someone wake up if they have sleep paralysis. Technically, they are awake but need help connecting their brain and body. Sleep paralysis also feels like it’s going on for much longer than it is, so helping someone come out of it quicker will stop them from feeling as distressed. You can talk to or shake them slightly to help eliminate the paralysis.

How to stop sleep paralysis

Of course, it’s challenging to recommend that anyone suffering from the problem gets a good night’s sleep to overcome it, as often the issue is that the sufferer cannot do so.

Instead, taking specific steps to hopefully lessen your chances of experiencing it include monitoring your sleep and wake times more effectively so that you consistently achieve the optimum amount of hours for your age.

  1. Get a good bedtime routine in place. By prioritising relaxation and healthy sleep habits, you are less likely to experience stress or anxiety that can cause sleep paralysis.
  2. Reduce your consumption of alcohol and drugs, prescribed and otherwise, especially before bed.
  3. Avoid sleeping on your back or front to reduce the risk of feeling paralysed, says Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University. This links to less weight being pressed against the chest, thus avoiding the normal pressure associated with the disorder.
  4. A clearer mind will result in fewer dreams and hallucinations, so promoting improved mental health will always benefit you. These steps can include meditation, aromatherapy and progressive muscle relaxation. Essentially, anything that leads to you feeling less stressed is suitable for you to do. Implementing a strict sleep routine is perhaps the most important step to beating your sleep paralysis or reducing your experiences.

Do children get sleep paralysis?

Yes, unfortunately, sleep paralysis can be widespread in children. This is because they are processing a lot of information, and their brains are still developing. However, they may not be able to articulate what they are experiencing. Night terrors are also common for kids.

The best way to help your child suffering from either is to establish a healthy bedtime routine with as little stress before sleep as possible.

Child struggling with bad dreams? Read our top tips for helping them...

The language and mythology of sleep paralysis:

Sleep paralysis as a term was first documented in Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, where it is described as a nightmare – but its history dates back far further. It is intrinsically linked with the origin of the word nightmare itself.

It was considered the work of demons – specifically incubi and succubi – which would sit upon the chests of sleepers and lead to sensations of suffocation. The Old English term for these demons is the mare from which nightmare is derived. Sufferers of this condition were often said to be ‘hag-ridden’, and it is this term for sleep paralysis that roots the state in folklore more than 4000 years old.

Whether the demonic creature is Lilitu of ancient Sumerian texts or Adam’s first wife Lilith, who chose damnation over subservience to the first man, the hag, in all its forms, is a cross-cultural monster that has haunted the sleep of humans for millennia – and, following a study in 1991, is still recognised as a possible cause of Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS) in a population of Laotian Hmong men.

Medical science has not, of course, decided to declare the reality of demons. However, this population, among which otherwise healthy men with a median age of 33 were dying in unexpectedly high numbers from SUNDS, held a sincere belief in a nightmare spirit called the dab tsog. Combined with the stress the idea induced during instances of sleep paralysis, this superstition is believed to be a possible contributing factor in their death.

The impact of culture on an individual’s experience of sleep paralysis may also explain the generational and geographical differences in reporting, which see traditional demonic explanations become alien abduction in some demographics and ominous shadow people in others.

Potentially experienced by as much as 8% of the population, the first clinical description of sleep paralysis was published in 1664 by Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck. This Dutch physician described it as an Incubus or Nightmare. Still, despite more than three centuries of study, a definitive cause of sleep paralysis has yet to be found – through a study published in 2021 may have confirmed suspected links:

We identified a population of glycinergic neurons in the ventral medulla that plays an important role in inducing muscle atonia during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep […] Genetic silencing of this pathway resulted in REM sleep without atonia and a decrease of cataplexy when applied to narcoleptic mice.

While it will take a while before statements can be made conclusively, there is at least hope that the cause of such experiences may soon be identified, creating more targeted treatments a possibility.

Notable appearances in popular culture:

Sleep paralysis is possibly the most widely depicted parasomnia, also known as sleep disorders, in popular culture. It has appeared in everything from Brahm Stoker’s Dracula to the X-Files and plays a part in many of the Creepy Pasta influenced digital folk-tales of shadow people and other tales of the paranormal or supernatural. With appearances in folklore across the globe and throughout thousands of years, it is no wonder that this frequently terrifying condition has found its way into the tropes of many genres.

About the author

More from the Sleep Matters Club