Definition of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a period of paralysis that occurs either just as a person is falling asleep, or just as a person is waking up. The person is unable to move the body, limbs, or the head for a few seconds up to a few minutes during sleep paralysis.

However, the eyes usually remain able to move. This means the paralysis isn’t complete, but it can feel as though it is to the person experiencing it.

Sleep paralysis isn’t harmful physically. Yet, there is an increase in feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress experienced by those who have repeated episodes.

Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors

Sleep paralysis is not the same as having night terrors. In sleep paralysis, the person actually wakes up and is aware of their surroundings. They know they’re in their bed and they understand that they can’t move.

Night Terrors usually happen in children, although it does also appear in adults. In these episodes, the person does not wake up. Rather, they may appear to be awake, as they can sit upright, open their eyes, and look around with a look of terror or panic on their faces. Some will scream or cry out. Others will begin to breathe more rapidly and even begin sweating. Yet, they usually have no recollection of the episodes.

Types of Sleep Paralysis

There are two primary types of Sleep Paralysis:

Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis

If a person experiences paralysis before falling asleep, this is known as Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis. It may also be referred to as “Predormital Sleep Paralysis”. Essentially, the body begins to shut down in preparation for the REM sleep phase. However, instead of falling asleep fully, the person remains aware.

Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis

If a person experiences paralysis upon waking up, this is known as Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis. It may also be referred to as “Postdormital Sleep Paralysis”. This is when a person wakes up and becomes aware of surroundings, but the body hasn’t completed the REM phase of sleep properly. The body remains unresponsive for several seconds or even minutes after waking up.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

The most common symptom of sleep paralysis is the inability to move the body, limbs or head for several seconds or minutes just before falling asleep, or just after waking up. A general feeling of numbness may extend along the arms and legs. Some people may also experience temporary tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

People who experience sleep paralysis often feel terrified at their sudden inability to move. There are also many people who report having hallucinations at the same time. These include seeing faces or people beside the bed, or feeling a dangerous presence in the room with them. This sensation causes a sense of anxiety, fear or terror in most.

Others may experience the feeling that something or someone is holding them down. This might be accompanied by pressure or tightness in the chest. Some people experience breathing difficulties, or shortness of breath, that increases feelings of anxiety.

Due to the strong hallucinations that can appear during this phase, many people pass off the paralysis and fear as part of a bad dream. Unfortunately, there is also strong evidence that many people continue to experience bad dreams throughout their waking paralysis. These nightmares often include violence, gore and horrific events that leave the person feeling terrified when it next comes time to sleep.

Causes of Sleep Paralysis

There are several potential causes of sleep paralysis. It has been shown in recent experiments that the most likely cause is a disruption in the REM phase of sleep.

Of course, how that REM-phase disruption occurs may differ from person to person.

Essentially, what is happening to the body physiologically during Hypnagogic or Predormital Sleep Paralysis is that the brain is beginning to shut down, preparing for the REM phase of sleep. This means the brain stops transmitting signals to the body, yet it has bypassed shutting down the awareness mode yet. This leaves the person feeling awake and aware of surroundings, yet unable to control or move the body.

Some factors show up frequently in those people studied for sleep paralysis. These include:

  • Narcolepsy (falling asleep at inappropriate times)

  • High stress levels

  • Sleeping face-up, or sleeping on the back

  • Lifestyle changes

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Fatigue

  • Interrupted circadian rhythms (shift workers, or jet lag)

  • Excessive alcohol consumption before sleeping

  • Certain medications

Sleep Paralysis Effects

While sleep paralysis in itself is not harmful, there may be some psychological distress people feel after an episode. This is heightened if the episode contained particularly vivid or frightening images, feelings or sounds, and can increase anxiety and panic disorder symptoms. It may also trigger other sleep disorders, including insomnia.

In some people, the fear of having another episode can increase symptoms of depression. Many people also report waking up with a headache once the paralysis has gone.

Sleep Paralysis Experiences

Folklore

There are plenty of case studies and anecdotes about people who have experienced sleep paralysis at some point. In fact, there are tales dating back hundreds of years from almost every culture around the world about people experiencing sleep paralysis.

One common North American folklore tale tells of the “Old Hag”, who was thought to have her spirit leave her physical body at night to seek out a victim. She would sit on the chest of her chosen victim, restricting their breathing. This was usually enough to wake up her victims, giving them a deep sense of terror that they couldn’t move and there was a heavy pressure on their chest.

In parts of Asia, the words they use to describe sleep paralysis translate to mean that the person is being held down or pressed down on by a ghost or a spirit. These include:

  • “ghost pressing on body” (from Chinese pinyin)

  • “held down by a ghost” (from Vietnamese ma đè)

  • “being pressed down on by a ghost” (from Korean gawi nulim)

  • “the ghost that forces one down” (from Sri Lankan Tamil amuku be)

In Mexico, the common belief is that sleep paralysis is brought on by spirits pressing onto the body of the person sleeping. Their term translates to mean “dead person on you” (from Mexican-Spanish subirse el muerto).

Sleep Paralysis Stories

The Internet has provided an excellent outlet for many people who experience sleep paralysis. It offers them a way to tell their own tale and read those of other people. This helps them feel less alone with their symptoms, which can greatly reduce anxiety and fear that there is something wrong with them.

Many stories feature common themes of feeling a presence or entity in the room with them at the time of their paralysis. In most cases, those entities are thought to be evil, or have malicious intent. This is usually because a strong feeling of fear, dread or even impending death overwhelms the person during the episode. Yet, the sleeper is completely unable to move or call out, even though they can open their eyes and they are aware of their surroundings.

This occurrence serves to strengthen paranormal beliefs about ghosts, spirits, demons, or other ethereal beings visiting them during their sleep. Others simply believe they’re seeing the spirit of a loved one, come to pass on a message or to watch over them in their sleep.

Alien Abductions

The vast number of stories from people who experience sleep paralysis that feature alien themes is enormous. Researchers are aware of the strong link between sleep paralysis and hallucinations. Many people also report having unusual headaches after an episode. This has led them to use sleep paralysis as a form of explanation for alien sightings or abductions that have been reported over the years.

Sleep Paralysis Statistics

Statistics show that up to 60% of people may experience sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. Fortunately, for most of these people, the symptoms only occur once or twice throughout their lifetimes. These incidences are thought to be caused by sleep deprivation, or periods of intense stress, and are usually isolated.

A recent study conducted with University students across several countries showed that 24% of the participants had experienced sleep paralysis at least once. Only 4% of participants had gone on to experience 5 or more sleep paralysis episodes.

Researchers revealed that 35% of people who reported sleep paralysis episodes also had a history of having panic attacks. These attacks were not related to their sleep paralysis episodes.

The same research also showed that 16% of people who reported experiencing sleep paralysis were also diagnosed as having panic disorder.

Researchers are also aware that a high percentage of people who have regular sleep paralysis episodes also have narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic sleeping disorder that causes people to fall asleep at inappropriate times.

Sleep Paralysis Diagnosis

Most physicians diagnose patients with sleep paralysis after the symptoms have first been reported. Patients usually must answer a questionnaire, in which a series of questions relating to the experience are assessed.

Many doctors treating patients for sleep paralysis will often request that testing for narcolepsy is also conducted.

Treatments for Sleep Paralysis

Medical Treatments

While sleep paralysis doesn’t require medication for treatment, some people do prefer to reduce the other symptoms they experience. A physician may prescribe a short-course of tricyclic anti-depressants in an effort to treat sleep paralysis. Clomipramine is commonly used for this purpose, as are Valium and Xanax.

Other doctors may prefer to prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat the condition. These are anti-depressants that work in a different way to tricyclics. These include Zoloft and Prozac.

Unfortunately, some anti-depressant medication is known to trigger vivid nightmares in some people. There is also a risk of other adverse side effects occurring due to the medication.

Some doctors are known to prescribe Zolpidem in an effort to treat sleep paralysis. Yet, Zolpidem is a muscle relaxant commonly used to treat insomnia.

As a percentage of people with sleep paralysis issues also experience anxiety and panic disorder, Clonazepam may be prescribed. This is marketed under the name of Klonopin in the United States, or Rivotril in Canada, Europe, Australia and Brazil.

If the person having sleep paralysis problems is also diagnosed as having narcolepsy, this latter condition may need to be treated as well. Medications designed to treat narcolepsy include Xyrem.

Natural Treatments

People who experience isolated sleep paralysis episodes may not need any real treatment. These isolated experiences tend to go away on their own for the majority of people.

However, there are some preventive measures people can take to reduce the chance of another episode occurring. Sleep paralysis prevention can often be the key to alleviating many other symptoms that arise, too.

Research shows that sleep paralysis is more likely to happen if a person sleeps on their back. Making an effort to sleep in a different position may help.

Working through stress management techniques can reduce stress levels, making it easier to get a good night’s sleep. Increasing physical activity throughout the day is known to assist with better sleep. However, it’s wise to avoid exercising for three hours before going to bed.

Trying to stick to a regular sleep schedule can help reduce sleep paralysis greatly. This helps the body and the mind get into a pattern of sleeping at similar times and waking up at similar times.

There is also strong evidence that avoiding stimulants in the hours before going to bed can help. This means avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol for at least four hours before going to bed.

Sleep Paralysis Help

Anyone struggling to understand sleep paralysis, or who is feeling alone with their condition, can find excellent sources of support online. There are many community forums and message boards available specifically for those who experience sleep paralysis.

One of the best ways to help reduce feelings of anxiety or stress about sleep paralysis episodes is to increase understanding about it. Talking to others who regularly experience these episodes and discussing potential treatments can go a long way to helping control them more effectively.