Sleep paralysis (2023)

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak when you're waking up or falling asleep. It's not harmful and should pass quickly, but can be frightening. It can affect anyone but is most common in young adults. See your GP if you experience sleep paralysis regularly.

Symptomsof sleep paralysis

The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being completely aware of your surroundings but temporarily being unable to move or talk. This usually occurs as you're waking up, but can happen when falling asleep.

During an episode of sleep paralysis you may:

  • find it difficult to take deep breaths,asif yourchest is being crushed or restricted
  • be able to move your eyes– some people can also open their eyes but others find they can't
  • havea sensation that there's someone or something in the room with you (hallucination)– many peoplefeel thispresence wishes to harm them
  • feel very frightened

The length of an episode can vary from afew seconds to several minutes. Many people have sleep paralysis once or twice in their life, while others experience it a few times a month or more regularly.

You'll be able to move and speak as normal afterwards, although you may feel unsettled and anxious about going to sleep again.

Whento see your GP

In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off and won't happen again. It's not harmful and isn't usually a sign of an underlying problem.

But it's a good idea to see your GP if:

  • you experience sleep paralysis regularly
  • you feel very anxious about going to sleep or you're struggling to get enough sleep
  • you feelvery sleepy during the day,orhave episodes where youfall asleep suddenly or lose muscle control– these are symptoms of a related sleep disorder callednarcolepsy

Your GPcansuggest ways to improve your sleep. If your symptoms are severe,theymay refer you to a sleep specialist.

Causesof sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis happens when parts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occur while you're awake.

REM is a stage of sleep whenthe brain is very active and dreams often occur. The body is unable to move, apart from the eyes and muscles used in breathing, possibly to stop you acting out your dreams and hurting yourself.

It's not clear why REM sleep can sometimes occur while you're awake, but it has beenassociated with:

  • not getting enough sleep (sleep deprivation orinsomnia)
  • irregular sleeping patterns– for example, because of shift work orjet lag
  • narcolepsy–a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times
  • a family history of sleep paralysis
  • sleeping on your back

In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off or veryoccasional event that occurs in someone who ishealthy in other respects.

Treatmentsfor sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis often gets better over time, but improving your sleeping habits and sleeping environment may help.

It can help to:

  • get a good night's sleep–most adults needsix to eighthours of good quality sleepa night
  • go to bed at roughly the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning
  • create a sleeping environment that's comfortable, quiet, dark and not too hot or cold
  • avoid eating big meals, smoking, ordrinking alcohol or caffeineshortly before going to bed
  • get regular exercise (but not within four hours of going to bed)

If your sleep paralysis is particularly severe, a specialist doctor may suggest taking a course ofantidepressant medication, such as clomipramine.

These work by altering REM sleep and are typically prescribed at lower doses than when used fordepression.

More useful links

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information seeterms and conditions.


Sleep paralysis? ›

Sleep paralysis refers to the phenomenon in which resumption of consciousness occurs while muscle atonia of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is maintained, leading to intense fear and apprehension in the patient as the patient lies awake without the ability to use any part of their body.

What can sleep paralysis be caused by? ›

Causes of sleep paralysis
  • insomnia.
  • disrupted sleeping patterns – for example, because of shift work or jet lag.
  • narcolepsy – a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep.
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • generalised anxiety disorder.
  • panic disorder.
  • a family history of sleep paralysis.

What are the horrors of sleep paralysis? ›

Sleep paralysis may include hallucinations, such as an intruding presence or dark figure in the room, suffocating or the individual feeling a sense of terror, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one's chest and difficulty breathing.

Can sleep paralysis hurt you? ›

Sleep paralysis occurs when you temporarily cannot move or speak upon waking up or falling asleep. While sleep paralysis is fairly common and does not cause any physical harm, it can be scary. There are some things you can do to reduce the risk of having an episode.

What do you see during sleep paralysis? ›

When sleep paralysis is accompanied by a sleep-related hallucination, the person then begins to see, hear, feel, or sense changes in their environment. Hallucinations may be simple, stationary images or more complex and multisensory intruder, incubus, or vestibular-motor hallucinations.

How do you break out of sleep paralysis? ›

7 Tips To Break Free From Sleep Paralysis
  1. Slow Your Breathing. This can go hand-in-hand if you're trying to relax, as fear can cause erratic breathing or ceasing breathing altogether. ...
  2. Wiggle a Toe. ...
  3. Don't Sleep on Your Back. ...
  4. Turn it into a Lucid Dream. ...
  5. Make a Face.
Jul 20, 2017

How do you fight sleep paralysis? ›

How Can Sleep Paralysis be Prevented?
  1. Sleeping on the side, instead of on the back, as the condition is triggered while sleeping on the back for most people.
  2. During a sleep paralysis attack, try to stay calm and concentrate on your breathing. ...
  3. Focus on making one small muscle move. ...
  4. Concentrate on your breathing.

Who is most likely to sleep paralysis? ›

Sleep paralysis can affect men and women of any age group. The average age when it first occurs is 14 to 17 years. It is a fairly common sleep problem. Estimates of how many people have it vary widely from 5% to 40%.

What do sleep paralysis demons do? ›

Throughout history, people across the globe have reported incidents of waking in the night, unable to move, with feelings that a presence has trapped them in their beds. Many likened the experience to a demon or dark creature sitting on their chest, holding down their body.

Can you scream during sleep paralysis? ›

You try to scream, but you can't. You can't move a single muscle! If this sounds familiar, you've probably experienced an episode of sleep paralysis, which involves the inability to move or speak upon falling asleep or awakening and is often coupled with hallucinations.

Can you force yourself out of sleep paralysis? ›

There are no proven therapies that can stop a sleep paralysis episode, but most people who experience it routinely report that focusing on making small body movements (such as moving one finger, then another) helps them to recover more quickly.

What is the weird feeling during sleep paralysis? ›

Many people say they feel pressure or contact. It's like something or someone is holding them down. Some people with sleep paralysis report tingling, numbness, or a vibrating sensation. Others describe a sense of floating, flying, or falling.

Is sleep paralysis a dream? ›

Researchers believe sleep paralysis is caused by a disturbed rapid eye movement cycle because it mostly happens as people are falling into or coming out of REM sleep. During that stage, their brains normally paralyze their muscles anyway -- so they don't act out their dreams.

How do I know if I'm having sleep paralysis? ›

The core symptom of sleep paralysis is the inability to move the body when falling asleep or waking. However, during these episodes, people may experience other symptoms, including: being unable to speak during the episode.

How rare is sleep paralysis? ›

Sleep paralysis (SP) is a common condition that affects approximately 7.6% of the general population during their lifetime [1].

Are your eyes open during sleep paralysis? ›

This usually occurs as you're waking up, but can happen when falling asleep. During an episode of sleep paralysis you may: find it difficult to take deep breaths, as if your chest is being crushed or restricted. be able to move your eyes – some people can also open their eyes but others find they can't.

Do you stop breathing during sleep paralysis? ›

Some people may also have hallucinations. During an episode of sleep paralysis, people may feel like they can't breathe, but that's not actually the case — a person continues to breathe throughout the episode.

What mental illness causes night terrors? ›

Adults are more likely to have night terrors if they have a history of:
  • bipolar disorder.
  • depression.
  • anxiety.

What happens to your brain when you sleep high? ›

Short-term cannabis use appears to increase the time you spend in deep sleep, the stage that helps you wake up feeling refreshed. However, THC decreases the amount of time you spend in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when you spend more time dreaming, processing emotions, and cementing new memories.

Why do I wake up feeling like I've been beaten up? ›

Scientists have discovered that we wake up stiff and achy because our body's natural ibuprofen has not kicked in yet. As the day darkens into night, the circadian clocks in joint tissue suppress inflammation and also the body's production of anti-inflammatory proteins, our natural pain-dampeners.

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