What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Last updated: March 23, 2017
Sleep Paralysis

Few things are more frightening than waking up with the disturbing realization that you are unable to move. After an episode such as this, it is no wonder that people often come to us asking about sleep paralysis. While there is some comfort in knowing that many people throughout history have dealt with this upsetting condition, it is not so reassuring to discover that getting to the bottom of your sleep paralysis can be complicated. As you search for answers regarding why you or a loved one wake up feeling as though your body has been taken over by some unseen force, use this guide to help you understand more about what is happening to disrupt your sleep at night.

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What Are The Symptoms?

We find that people who come to us asking what is sleep paralysis usually already know that what they have experienced isn’t normal. This is because the symptoms are so disturbing that there is no way to forget what happened. The most obvious symptom of sleep paralysis is the sensation of waking up unable to move; however, other disturbing phenomena may also take place such as the feeling of something sitting on your chest or of an entity trying to push you down onto the bed. You might also hear knocking sounds or something similar to a rush of air going by your head. Hallucinatory symptoms are also common such as seeing a shadowy figure or having an out-of-body experience. None of these symptoms do anything to help the heart-stopping terror that you experience during one of these episodes. Unfortunately, all you can do is be stuck in your sleeping position until it passes.

Who Is At Risk For Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis causes can vary among people due to the many different things that influence sleep. However, it is known that almost half of all adults have experienced an episode of waking up paralyzed during the night, and it does tend to run in families. Although children can experience this condition, it typically begins after a person has hit their teens, and it affects men and women equally. People who experience frequent disruptions to their sleep due to work, parenting, or school are at greater risk for developing symptoms of sleep paralysis along with those who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Taking certain medications or having a problem with substance abuse also increase your risk for this disorder.

What Are The Causes?

The sleep process involves two phases called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) that your body cycles through during the night. Throughout most of the night, your body is in the NREM phase, but it shifts to REM shortly before waking. It is during this phase that your muscles are shut down and dreams occur. While not being able to move when you are actively dreaming helps keep you safe, it becomes disturbing if you become mentally aware of your surroundings while in this phase. Awareness during the REM stage of sleep is a known cause of feeling this sense of paralysis. It may also occur if you stay aware of your surroundings as you fall asleep. Essentially, anything that interferes with your sleep either before or after you slip into your dream state could cause you to experience an episode of paralysis. This is why having another type of sleep disorder such as narcolepsy is considered to be a common cause of feeling these symptoms. Sleep paralysis causes can also include schedule changes, your sleep position, and health conditions that interfere with your ability to rest, such as leg cramps.

How Do You End An Episode?

In most instances, sleep paralysis only lasts a few seconds to minutes, and it resolves on its own. However, a sleeping partner might be able to help you stop it by touching your body or saying your name in a loud, clear voice. People who are accustomed to these episodes have also found that mentally focusing on moving their bodies helps stop an episode sooner than if they give into the fright.

Sleep Paralysis And The Supernatural

It is interesting to note that sleep paralysis is not a new thing. The symptoms have been described centuries ago in writings that indicate people struggling with night demons. In recent times, supernatural forces have been attributed to causing these night terrors, and many cultures even have a name for these so-called demons that attack while a person is sleeping. For example, people in the West Indies call the attacking night spirit, Kokoma, while people living in Newfoundland call it a hag that sits on a person’s chest. People living in the United States have also related the feeling of paralysis to alien visitations due to the strange electrical sounds and sensations that they have felt along with the feeling of being outside of their bodies. While there are many different views of this condition that are held throughout the world, one thing that everyone agrees upon is that the symptoms are absolutely terrifying.

When Should a Diagnosis Be Sought?

A single episode of sleep paralysis is disturbing, but it is usually not a cause for alarm. This is because some people experience it once in their life and never have a problem again. Other people, however, may experience these symptoms multiple nights a week for many years. When this happens, it is important to seek help to find out if there is an obvious underlying cause that can be treated. If you find that you feel anxious about falling asleep because you fear waking up paralyzed, or if frequent episodes cause you to feel sleepy during the day, then it is important to address your concerns.

What Types of Tests Are Used To Make a Diagnosis?

Most sleep specialists can diagnose an episode of sleep paralysis simply by having you describe the symptoms. However, further research must be done to determine your individual causes of sleep paralysis. To get an accurate diagnosis and recommendation for treatment, you may be asked to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks where you document the things you experience at night. Your health history may also be discussed to find out if you have risk factors such as a family history of sleep disorders or recently beginning a new medication. You may also be asked to describe your daily schedule to check for signs of stress or disruptions in your sleep habits such as being a college student who stays up late to study for exams. In some instances, it is necessary to conduct a daytime nap or overnight sleep study so that a specialist is able to observe your sleep states and movements.

What Is Sleep Paralysis Helped By?

For a single instance of paralysis during the night, you will be encouraged to take a watchful stance and practice healthy sleep habits. When these episodes occur frequently, addressing the underlying cause does help ease the symptoms. People who have coexisting sleep disorders may be prescribed medications, such as antidepressants, to regulate the sleep cycles. Treating mental health conditions and learning ways to relax can also ensure that you stay asleep through all of your sleep cycles. Lifestyle changes can also help with stopping the symptoms. For example, trying to sleep in a position other than on your back may stop the sensation of pressure on your chest that leads so many people to associate with a supernatural force.

Is It Possible To Cure This Condition?

There is no known cure for sleep paralysis. However, treating related conditions that may be interfering with sleep and practicing healthy sleep habits does reduce the probability of the incidents occurring. For many people, a first episode of sleep paralysis begins in their teens and increases in frequency as they move into their 20's and 30's. While the episodes can occur beyond these ages, most people find that they gradually decrease with each decade. The good news is that sleep paralysis is not known to have any adverse effects on your health other than the emotional toll it takes to experience the symptoms and the possibility of fatigue caused by the lack of sleep. Yet, sleep specialists do recommend seeking an answer to what is causing the sensations so that you can take measures to find relief from the nighttime terrors.

The thought of waking up mid-sleep with the awareness that you cannot move is enough to keep you up at night. However, quality sleep is essential for every part of your daily functioning, and having it interrupted leaves you vulnerable to daytime fatigue that interferes with your productivity and safety. By addressing the underlying reasons for your nighttime episodes of paralysis, you can alleviate the anxiety associated with what feels like a supernatural experience while enjoying the well-being that comes after a night of restful sleep.

Other common sleep issues that you might want to read about include restless leg syndrome and overcoming sleep anxiety.

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