What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is an episode where you can’t move your body or speak. It normally happens directly before or after sleep, and while you are conscious. It is part of a collection of sleep disorders called parasomnias, which simply indicates that your sleep has some kind of general disruption. In the case of sleep paralysis, your body has trouble transitioning to and from sleep.
During an episode of sleep paralysis you will be:
- Unable to move
- Unable to speak
- Able to move your eyes
Sleep paralysis may be chronic, it may happen every so often, or it may only happen once. It can range from confusing to terrifying. Episodes typically last anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, and sometimes (though uncommon) may last longer than two minutes.
Though sleep paralysis can be scary, it’s not dangerous.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis
There doesn’t seem to be any central cause for sleep paralysis. That being said, sleep paralysis is more common in people who:
- Have narcolepsy
- Have a parent who experiences sleep paralysis
- Is taking certain medications, such as ADHD medications
- Experiences sudden changes in sleeping pattern, such as during travel or having a newborn baby
- Is suffering from sleep deprivation
- Has certain mental disorders
A lack of a clear cause, or having an underlying cause that is different for different people, can make treating sleep paralysis challenging or impossible.
What is it Like to Experience Sleep Paralysis?
An episode of sleep paralysis will make you feel totally helpless – namely, because outside of frantically moving your eyes you will be totally helpless.
If you are used to it, it will probably be a little unsettling and maybe even frustrating. If you are not used to experiencing it, you will likely be scared or even terrified – especially if you are unaware that sleep paralysis is an actual disorder.
Historically, people thought that an episode of sleep paralysis was the result of being in the presence of a demon or evil spirit. They can be that scary.
This picture is commonly thought to be a depiction of sleep paralysis
A typical first episode of sleep paralysis may start as you just waking up, or trying to go to sleep, but still being in that state where you are awake. When you try to roll over, you can't move, and may become very afraid. You can't speak, move your mouth or make any noise, as you desperately try to get the attention of your partner. This may continue for a couple of minutes, and then you will be able to resume your normal morning activities.
At some point you wonder things like:
- Did I have a stroke?
- Will I be paralyzed forever?
- Did something happen to my spinal cord?
- What if I can’t breathe?
Fortunately these episodes pass, but are very disconcerting. If you have experienced them before, the knowledge that you will be okay is enough to take much of the edge off of these episodes.
Ways to Avoid Sleep Paralysis
As said, there’s no treatment for sleep paralysis specifically. But there are some things you can do to help avoid it.
First of all, if you have an underlying cause, treat the underlying cause. For example, if you have narcolepsy, for which sleep paralysis is a common symptom, treating your narcolepsy may help prevent or eliminate these episodes.
If there is no underlying cause, some things you can do are:
- Get enough sleep – avoid becoming sleep deprived
- Avoid sleeping on your back, which is linked to sleep paralysis
- Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing these episodes in conjunction with serious mood problems
If sleep paralysis is a scary or chronic experience in your life, reach out to one of our sleep specialists who can help you get answers. Start by taking this free online sleep test: