If you’ve ever suffered from sleep paralysis, you’ll know it can be an incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling experience. But what exactly is sleep paralysis? 

Sleep paralysis is a condition that causes you to temporarily lose muscle function while you’re asleep, leaving you unable to move or speak for anywhere from a few seconds to around two minutes. It usually happens as you’re falling asleep, shortly after you’ve fallen asleep, or while you’re waking up. It’s a relatively common sleep condition and studies have shown approximately 8% of the general population has experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis.

You may know what’s happening during a sleep paralysis episode and you might be able to remember the details after you regain control of your muscles. Despite the prevalence of sleep paralysis, it’s an under-researched phenomenon that we still have much to learn about.

What triggers sleep paralysis?

Those who suffer from narcolepsy — a chronic sleep disorder that causes sufferers to suddenly become drowsy and fall asleep — may be more susceptible to episodes of sleep paralysis. It’s thought that people who suffer from insomnia, anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also be more likely to have a sleep paralysis episode.  

However, even people who don’t have sleep-related disorders or other underlying conditions can experience sleep paralysis. Other causes can include poor sleep hygiene, a disrupted sleep schedule, or a lack of sleep. Additionally, a 2018 study found that drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes may result in increased instances of sleep paralysis episodes.

According to Healthline, it’s also possible that sleeping on your back could lead to higher chances of experiencing sleep paralysis.

How can I avoid sleep paralysis?

When it comes to preventing sleep paralysis, there are some lifestyle changes you can make in order to treat symptoms and reduce the frequency of episodes.

Stress is a contributing factor in sleep paralysis (and many other sleep-related disorders), so working to reduce stress in your life can help to prevent episodes. Regular exercise can also help, but be sure not to exercise close to bedtime as this can further interfere with your sleep.

Getting enough high-quality rest and keeping a regular sleep schedule aids not only in sleep paralysis prevention, but also in your overall health. Avoid blue light before bed, keep the room temperature low, don’t eat in or work from your bed, limit naps, and practise other good sleep habits to ensure you’re getting the great sleep you deserve.

If you’re taking medications for any conditions, keep track of these. Understand your medications and the way they interact with one another in order to avoid potential side effects (which can include sleep paralysis in some cases). If you believe your medications are causing episodes of sleep paralysis, consult your doctor for advice.

Those who experience regular and recurring sleep paralysis may benefit from therapy, trauma counselling, or breathing exercises. If your episodes of sleep paralysis happen more than periodically, consult your doctor for advice — this may be an indication of another underlying condition.

Should you be worried about sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can be very upsetting, and it’s completely reasonable — and common — to feel worried or anxious during or after an episode. Along with temporary muscle loss, some who have experienced sleep paralysis report feeling as if something is pushing them down, feeling like someone or something is in the room with them, or feeling fearful.

During episodes of sleep paralysis, some people have hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHEs) — which are hallucinations that occur right before they fall asleep or right after they wake up.

Other symptoms that can arise during an episode of sleep paralysis include difficulty breathing, headaches, muscle aches, paranoia, and sweating. All of this makes for an unpleasant experience, but it’s important to remember that sleep paralysis is not life-threatening and episodes typically don’t last for longer than a couple of minutes.

How to stop sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis episodes usually end on their own, or when someone else touches or moves you. Sleep paralysis episodes that occur in isolation usually don’t require treatment, unless they’re significantly affecting your sleep. However, if you’re also exhibiting signs of narcolepsy — such as excessive tiredness during the day or sudden drowsiness — you should speak with your doctor, as this condition can be dangerous if it remains untreated.

If narcolepsy is the cause of your sleep paralysis, you may be prescribed medications to manage this. Most often, doctors will prescribe stimulants or selective serotonin repute inhibitors (SSRIs). Stimulants help you stay awake and SSRIs treat other symptoms linked with narcolepsy.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend that you complete a sleep study so they can better understand your symptoms and what may be causing them. During the sleep study, you’ll spend a night at a sleep centre and tests that monitor and record activity in your body will be carried out while you sleep. 

Familiarizing yourself with the symptoms of sleep paralysis — and recognizing what an episode of sleep paralysis is when it occurs — can help assuage the fear and anxiety that often comes with these episodes. If you do find yourself suffering from sleep paralysis, remind yourself that it’s only temporary, and continue to practise prevention techniques to reduce the likelihood of future episodes.