Sleep paralysis is the feeling of being awake but unable to move.
It’s a strange, scary feeling that many individuals will experience in their lifetime.
Let’s take a look into this condition, what causes it, and some things you can do to prevent it from happening in the first place.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is the experience of being conscious but not able to move your body.
In other words, your body is still asleep while you’re awake.
It’s believed to occur during the transition to or from REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When we dream, our brain switches off our body’s ability to move. This is done to prevent us from actually acting out whatever we’re dreaming about. But once we wake up, our brain switches back on that ability to move.
However, sometimes we might wake up, but our brain doesn’t switch on our body’s ability to move. This “in-between” stage is what we know as sleep paralysis.
There are two primary types of sleep paralysis:
- Hypnagogic, which is when you’re falling asleep.
- Hypnopompic, which is when you’re waking up.
Researchers believe that about 8% of people will experience sleep paralysis at some point in their lifetime, though some studies show that number to be much higher.
By definition, sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia, and is categorized with other sleep disorders such as sleepwalking, sleep talking, and night terrors.
Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis
Symptoms of sleep paralysis vary widely depending on the individual.
The most common symptom is being awake but not being able to speak or move.
Other symptoms of sleep paralysis commonly include:
- Chest pressure and shortness of breath
- Racing heart
- Anxiety and panic
- Feeling trapped or like you’re falling
Furthermore, some individuals may also experience visual and auditory hallucinations.
Some rare but extreme symptoms include feeling sensations of pain and being attacked.
These more intense symptoms result from the hyper-vigilant state we go into during an episode. When we’re awake but unable to move, our body goes into emergency response mode and intensifies threats.
However, it’s important to remember that you’re never in any real danger and that your episode won’t last long.
How Long Does Sleep Paralysis Last?
On average, sleep paralysis usually only lasts for a few seconds.
However, some more intense episodes can last for up to 2-3 minutes. Some individuals have even reported episodes longer than 5 minutes, though these instances are extremely rare.
Longer episodes are often more intense and can induce severe feelings of panic.
Sleep paralysis is a frightening experience, so the episodes can feel as if they’re lasting much longer than just a few seconds. This is especially true for extremely intense episodes.
But why do some individuals experience worse symptoms than others? Let’s take a look at the possible causes.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
There is no single cause of sleep paralysis.
Generally speaking, anyone can experience it. It affects men and women equally and has been documented in nearly every culture for the last 1,000 years.
However, individuals with mental illnesses may be at a higher risk for sleep paralysis, including those with:
Furthermore, people with sleep disorders such as insomnia or narcolepsy are much more prone to experiencing episodes.
Researchers also believe that that the condition may have a genetic component. However, more research is needed to confirm this.
Finally, sleep deprivation, general fatigue, or not having a consistent sleep schedule may also increase your likelihood of experiencing an episode.
How to Stop Sleep Paralysis
The best way to stop an episode is to prevent it in the first place.
One of the best ways to prevent recurring episodes is to improve your overall sleep hygiene. A few tips on how to do this include:
- Avoiding large meals or caffeine before bedtime
- Sleeping on a consistent schedule
- Keeping your room a cool temperature at night
- Exercising regularly during the daytime
- Practicing yoga or breathing exercises
- Sleeping on your side
If you’re in the middle of an episode, here are some things you can do to try and come out of it:
- Focus on moving one muscle at a time
- Remain calm and concentrate on your breathing
- Try to make a sound
Lastly, if you have a sleep disorder or mental illness, treating those underlying issues may help with preventing how often the episodes occur.
It’s Scary, But You’ll Be Fine
While it can be a terrifying experience, remember that having an episode is not dangerous. Furthermore, there are no actual health risks associated with experiencing episodes.
If you’re dealing with chronic bouts of sleep paralysis, remember:
- Practice good sleep hygiene
- Treat the underlying cause, if there is one
- Remain calm
Consult with your healthcare provider so you can find the best treatment plan.