Sleep Paralysis: What is it? Causes & Treatments

6 min read

Last Modified 30 April 2021 First Added 20 February 2019

By Leigh Horan

To dig a little deeper into this phenomenon which affects roughly 8% of the population, we look at common questions surrounding sleep paralysis, such as why does it happen and how to treat it.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a condition where you are temporarily paralysed while waking up or falling asleep, meaning you may be unable to move or speak. 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, it’s not harmful to your health.

Although we’ve briefly looked at the definition, it’s important to understand the science behind it. Overnight, our brain goes through several different sleep cycles, all important stages of sleep in order 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 in order to rest. That’s why this condition is often referred to as The Demon of the Bedroom.

Sleep paralysis - Image of woman paralysed by fear

However, things can go wrong when we are in the deep sleep stage. During this period of paralysis, you can wake up, whilst still being stuck in REM sleep. This means that you can see your surroundings but are completely unable to move a muscle. The person experiencing sleep paralysis may or may not hallucinate whilst ‘stuck’ in their own 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.

Read More: What Happens To Your Body During 8 Hours Of Sleep?

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.

Common Sleep Paralysis Dreams

As stated, this causes frightening sleep paralysis hallucinations or nightmares. 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.

Sleep paralysis - Image of boy scared by man in door

This is because your anxiety levels are extremely high, as your brain is unable to rationalise the experience. This leads your brain to project shapes or even images of yourself within your field of vision, which only induces more panic.

Although waking up with sleep paralysis feels like a living nightmare, it’s not been linked to the content of your dreams, meaning a scary dream isn’t likely to lead to sleep paralysis. Even if you dream that you’re dying, it doesn’t mean you will ‘wake up dead’.

What causes sleep paralysis?

‘Why do you get sleep paralysis?’ is a commonly asked question with multiple theories. Though there is a range of sleep paralysis causes that can lead to someone experiencing it, there isn’t yet a clearly defined source that experts believe is to blame for what causes sleep paralysis. Several inducing factors include:

  • Bad sleeping patterns, such as suffering from sleep deprivation and not scheduling in enough time for shut-eye.
  • An irregular sleeping pattern, for example, if you do night work 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 especially unfortunate, then you may be one of the few who are genetically predisposed to experience paralysed sleep, though this is extremely rare and can be cured through therapy.

Has anyone died from sleep paralysis?

No. Can sleep paralysis hurt you? Also no. Sleeping paralysis has often been described as feeling like you are ‘waking up dead’. For that reason, the fear of dying during these episodes is a common concern. While it’s particularly terrifying, it’s not harmful. Dr Breus adds “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.”

Sleep paralysis - Image of The Nightmare

John Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare – Image courtesy of

How to wake up from sleep paralysis

Unfortunately, there’s no concrete way to jolt out of this sleeping disorder. You just have to try not to panic and trust that you will wake up. However, attempting to wiggle your toes or fingers may be a good place to start to bring your body into consciousness. It’s also a good idea to focus on your breathing and try to remain calm throughout.

 How to stop sleep paralysis

Of course, it’s difficult to simply recommend that anyone suffering from the problem gets a good night’s sleep in order to overcome it, as often the issue is that the sufferer is unable to do so. Instead, taking certain steps to hopefully lessen your chances of experiencing it include monitoring your sleep and wake times more effectively so that you always achieve the optimum amount of hours for your age.

  1. Avoiding sleeping on your back or front can also 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 that familiar pressure associated with the disorder. Reducing your consumption of drugs, prescribed and otherwise, and alcohol is also beneficial.
  2. A clearer mind will result in fewer dreams, and fewer hallucinations, so taking steps to promote an improved state of 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 the right thing for you to do. Implementing a strict sleep routine, however, is perhaps the most important step you can take towards beating your sleep paralysis or at least reducing your experiences of it.

Sleep paralysis - Image of meditating woman

Have you suffered from sleep paralysis and is there anything specific that helped you to overcome it? Let us know in the comments section.

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