Everything You Need to Know About Sleep Paralysis
If you've ever experienced sleep paralysis, you likely know it can be unsettling and a little scary. The Sleep Foundation describes the condition as a temporary inability to move immediately after you fall asleep or wake up. Sleep paralysis can be emotionally troubling, as individuals are fully aware and mentally awake during an episode, and may even undergo hallucinations or feel unable to breathe at the same time.
Researchers indicate that nearly 8 percent of people experience sleep paralysis during their lifetime, though estimates vary. There's a lot still unknown about sleep paralysis, such as how often it recurs and what causes it in the first place.
What it's like to have sleep paralysis
One of the defining symptoms of sleep paralysis is the brief inability to move your muscles just after falling asleep or waking up, a condition known as atonia. You also naturally experience atonia during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the period of sleep during which your dreams are the most vivid. When you're in REM sleep, atonia helps stop you from acting out dreams and dissipates as you wake up, allowing you to regain full control over your muscles again.
Experts believe sleep paralysis is best described as a mixed state of consciousness in which your body experiences both wakefulness and REM sleep at the same time—this would explain why you feel fully awake and conscious during sleep paralysis, but are unable to move. Because your body is still reacting as though it were in REM sleep, the mental imagery you experience in a dream during REM sleep may manifest as hallucinations during sleep paralysis. These dream-like hallucinations can feel scary and lifelike, as they sometimes project onto the world around you, especially as you may even be able to open your eyes during an episode.
One study indicated about 75 percent of sleep paralysis episodes involve hallucinations that are quite unlike typical dreams. These hallucinations vary from person to person, but often involve the feeling or perception that there is something dangerous nearby that you can't get away from. Hallucinations are sometimes accompanied by a feeling of pressure on the chest that creates a sensation of suffocation, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Another common type of hallucination makes it seem as though you are moving, falling or leaving your body. Research has found sleep paralysis episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to 20 minutes, though the average length is about 5 minutes.
When to talk to a doctor
Fortunately, most people who report sleep paralysis do not experience it often—in fact, sometimes it never recurs after the first time. For this reason, sleep paralysis is usually considered a benign condition that doesn't require treatment.
However, some people do have recurring episodes, and because the condition can often be troubling or disturbing, this could lead to a fear of falling asleep, restlessness, excessive tiredness and anxiety.
Since there's still much to be learned about sleep paralysis, experts don't know what treatment is best. That being said, studies have found adjusting sleep habits and proactively receiving treatment for any sleep disorders, particularly obstructive sleep apnea, could help. Healthy sleep habits that may help prevent or reduce sleep paralysis episodes include cutting back on alcohol and caffeine in the evening, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, removing any distracting lights or noises from your sleep area and cutting back on screen time right before bed.
If you have repeated sleep paralysis episodes that affect you physically or emotionally, consult your doctor to discuss your sleep habits and to see if further treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), would prove fruitful.