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The dark truth about sleep paralysis

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Sleep paralysis is the temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up. It occurs when the body transitions between sleep stages and experiences a brief disruption in the regular coordination of muscle movement. Although sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, it is essential to understand that it is generally not indicative of deep-rooted psychiatric problems. Instead, it is considered a relatively common occurrence that can happen to anyone. By recognizing the symptoms and understanding the underlying mechanisms, individuals can gain a sense of reassurance and manage any anxiety or fear associated with sleep paralysis.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a condition that happens when you are in the middle of waking up or falling asleep[1]. It makes you unable to move or speak for a short time, even though you know what’s happening. During sleep paralysis, your brain is awake, but your body is temporarily unable to move because of natural muscle paralysis that stops you from acting out your dreams. This can make you feel stuck and have no control over your muscles. Some people also experience vivid hallucinations, a heavy sensation in the chest, and intense fear.

What is the typical duration of sleep paralysis episodes?

Sleep paralysis typically lasts for a few seconds to a couple of minutes and resolves spontaneously[2]. It is often associated with sleep disorders, stress, and insufficient sleep.   


 The exact cause of sleep paralysis is not fully understood, but it appears to be related to disruptions in the normal sleep-wake cycle and the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage. Although sleep paralysis can be frightening, it is a relatively common experience and is not considered a medical emergency.


Sleep paralysis typically occurs in two distinct moments[3].


During the process of falling asleep, known as hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis, or during the waking up phase, it is referred to as hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.


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These are specific periods when sleep paralysis episodes manifest themselves. When experiencing hypnagogic sleep paralysis happens during the transition from wakefulness to sleep, while hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs during the transition from sleep to wakefulness.


Understanding the timing of sleep paralysis incidents can help individuals recognize the different contexts in which it can happen and gain insights into its occurrence during their sleep-wake cycles.

Symptoms of sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis can come with different symptoms like [4]:


Symptoms of sleep paralysis


  1. Inability to move:                                                                                                                            During sleep paralysis, individuals experience a temporary inability to move their bodies voluntarily, despite being conscious and aware of their surroundings.
  2. The feeling of being paralyzed:                                                                                                  There is a sensation of muscle weakness or paralysis, making it challenging to speak, move limbs, or perform voluntary actions.
  3. Hallucinations:                                                                                                               Many individuals with sleep paralysis report vivid hallucinations, which can be visual, auditory, or tactile. These hallucinations may involve seeing shadowy figures, hearing strange sounds, or feeling pressure or touch sensations on the body.
  4. Intense fear or anxiety:                                                                                                              During sleep paralysis, you may experience intense fear and anxiety, often accompanied by a strong sense of panic or impending doom. This emotional distress can be overwhelming and contribute to the overall intensity of the experience.
  5. Breathing difficulties:                                                                                                                   Some individuals may feel a sense of pressure or restriction on their chest, making it challenging to breathe normally. This sensation can lead to further anxiety during the episode.

It’s important to note that the specific symptoms of sleep paralysis can vary among individuals, and not everyone will experience all of these symptoms.

Causes of sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis occurs due to various factors, although the exact causes remain unclear:


Causes of sleep paralysis


  1. Irregular sleep schedule or lack of sleep: Disruptions in sleep patterns or insufficient sleep can contribute to sleep paralysis.
  2. Medications and substances: Certain medications, such as antidepressants and substances like alcohol, may increase the risk of experiencing sleep paralysis.
  3. Underlying sleep disorders: Conditions like narcolepsy, which involves excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden loss of muscle tone, can be associated with sleep paralysis.
  4. Family history: There may be a genetic component to sleep paralysis, as it can run in families.
  5. Stress and anxiety: High stress and anxiety levels can trigger episodes of sleep paralysis.
  6. Other factors: Environmental factors, such as sleep position or environment, may also play a role in sleep paralysis.

It is important to note that while these factors may contribute to sleep paralysis, the exact cause of this phenomenon is still not fully understood.

Treatment of sleep paralysis

When it comes to the treatment of sleep paralysis, there is no specific cure. However, certain strategies can help manage and reduce the frequency of episodes. Here are some non-pharmacological approaches[5]:


Treatment of sleep paralysis


  1. Improving sleep hygiene:                                                                                                              Establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing sleep environment, and practicing good sleep habits can promote better sleep quality.
  2. Stress management:                                                                                                                      Engaging in stress-reducing activities like meditation, deep breathing exercises, or practicing relaxation techniques can help minimize anxiety and potentially prevent sleep paralysis.
  3. Sleep position adjustment:                                                                                                         Changing sleep positions, particularly avoiding sleeping on your back, may decrease the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis episodes.
  4. Addressing underlying sleep disorders:                                                                                  If sleep paralysis is associated with an underlying sleep disorder like narcolepsy, seeking treatment for the primary condition can potentially alleviate symptoms.
  5. Seeking support:                                                                                                                      Talking to a healthcare professional or a sleep specialist can provide valuable guidance, reassurance, and additional strategies to manage sleep paralysis.

It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional to discuss individual experiences and explore appropriate treatment options based on personal circumstances.

How to overcome sleep paralysis


How to overcome sleep paralysis


  1. Education and awareness:                                                                                                  Learn about sleep paralysis to understand its causes and realize that it is a natural phenomenon with no serious underlying health issues.
  2. Sleep hygiene practices:                                                                                               Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, create a comfortable sleep environment, and establish a relaxing bedtime routine to promote better sleep quality.
  3. Stress reduction techniques:                                                                                          Practice stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or calming activities before bedtime to minimize anxiety and stress that can contribute to sleep paralysis.
  4. Adjust sleep positions:                                                                                                        Experiment with different roles, especially avoiding sleeping on your back, as it may reduce the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis.
  5. Healthy lifestyle choices:                                                                                                    Adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and avoiding substances like alcohol or drugs that can disrupt sleep patterns.
  6. Seeking support:                                                                                                                  Connect with others who have experienced sleep paralysis to share experiences, gain support, and exchange coping strategies.
  7. Consultation with a healthcare professional:                                                           If sleep paralysis episodes are frequent, significantly distressing, or accompanied by other sleep disorders, seeking medical advice is recommended.


Sleep paralysis is a temporary and often harmless condition that occurs when the mind and body are out of sync during the sleep cycle. While some people may only experience it once or twice, others with underlying sleep disorders may be at higher risk. Although there is no specific treatment for sleep paralysis, understanding the condition and adopting healthy sleep habits can reduce the likelihood of episodes and associated distress. If you or someone you know experiences sleep paralysis frequently or with severe symptoms, it may be helpful to seek medical advice to rule out any underlying sleep disorders.


If you are looking for more sleep-related information and programs, you can visit the UWC website. There, you can find resources, information and have the opportunity to consult with experts to address your specific sleep concerns.


[1]Sleep paralysis. 2017.

[2]“Isolated sleep paralysis,” Mount Sinai Health System. [Online]. Available: https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/diseases-conditions/isolated-sleep-paralysis. [Accessed: 25-May-2023].

[3]A. Packard, “Is sleep paralysis a sign of something more serious?” J. Sleep Disord. Ther., vol. 10, no. 11, pp. 1–1, 2021.

[4]R. Pelayo and K. Yuen, “Sleep Paralysis,” in Encyclopedia of the Neurological Sciences, Elsevier, 2003, p. 307.

[5]K. O’Connell, “Sleep paralysis,” Healthline, 28-Jul-2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep/isolated-sleep-paralysis. [Accessed: 25-May-2023].

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