What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Has it ever happened to you to wake up without being able to move or speak? If so, you may have experienced an episode of sleep paralysis.
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Many of you are familiar with the phrase sleep paralysis, but what is it exactly? What causes sleep paralysis, what are its symptoms and is there anything you can do to prevent it? Read our article and find out. Last updated
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia that causes a brief loss of control over muscles and that happens when you pass between stages of wakefulness and sleep.
During sleep paralysis you are conscious but unable to move or speak. Some people may also experience hallucinations during episodes of sleep paralysis.
These episodes usually last for a few seconds up to a few minutes and some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking. Sleep paralysis is not life threatening, but you may remember it as horrifying and haunting.
Sleep paralysis may also accompany other sleep disorders including narcolepsy and sleep apnea.
Types of Sleep Paralysis
There are two types of sleep paralysis.
If it occurs while you are falling asleep, it is called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. If it happens while you are waking up, it is called hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis.
Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis
Your body slowly relaxes as you fall asleep and you become less aware of what’s going around you so you don’t even notice the change.
But, sometimes you may remain aware or suddenly become aware while falling asleep and that’s when you will notice that you can’t move or speak. That’s when hypnagogic sleep paralysis occurs.
Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis
As you sleep, your body alternates between rapid eye movement and non-rapid eye movement sleep.
NREM sleep occurs first and that’s when your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. That’s when your eyes start to move quickly and when dreams occur while your body is still relaxed and your muscles are turned off.
If it happens that you become aware before the end of REM cycle, you may find yourself unable to move and speak and that’s when hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs.
Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis
During both types of sleep paralysis you may experience various auditory, visual, and sensory hallucinations which fall into three categories:
- Intruder hallucinations – These hallucinations involve the perception of a threatening presence in the room or of a dangerous person, shadow man, sounds of doorknobs opening, footsteps, etc.
- Incubus (chest pressure hallucinations) – These hallucinations cause the feeling of pressure on the chest, breathing difficulties with the sense of being strangled, smothered or sexually assaulted by some malevolent being. They can frequently occur along with intruder hallucinations and also cause an individual to believe they are about to die.
- Vestibular-motor hallucinations – These hallucinations include the feelings of movement and a sense of falling, spinning, flying, floating, hovering over one’s body, etc.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is very common and may occur in 4 out of 10 people. It is first noticed in the teen years, but both men and women of any age may experience episodes of sleep paralysis.
It is not clear why exactly it occurs. It may run in families, but there are also other factors that may be linked to it and they include:
- Lack of sleep and insomnia
- Disrupted sleep because of jet lag or shift work
- Other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps
- Certain mental conditions such as stress or bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, panic disorder
- Sleeping on the back
- Use of certain medications
- Substance abuse
How Is Sleep Paralysis Diagnosed and Treated?
There is usually no special treatment for sleep paralysis, but if you experience episodes of sleep paralysis and they leave you tired because of the lack of sleep and if you are worried and scared to go to sleep, then you should talk to your doctor.
The first step in finding the right treatment is identifying and addressing some underlying problems that may be contributing to sleep paralysis and the frequency or severity of episodes.
So, if you suffer from an underlying sleep disorder such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea, your doctor may suggest treating these disorders first.
Other treatments may involve:
- Improving sleep habits – You should try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning and also get at least 6 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
- Exercising regularly – You should try to exercise regularly if it is possible, but avoid exercising late at night before going to bed as this can stimulate wakefulness.
- Using medications that are prescribed to you to help regulate sleep cycles, if they are prescribed.
- Treating underlying sleep disorders or any mental health problems that may contribute to sleep paralysis.
- Avoiding big meals, smoking or drinking alcohol and caffeine right before going to bed.
- Avoiding sleeping on your back as this can make sleep paralysis more likely to happen.
If you deal successfully with sleep paralysis and yet you still can’t sleep, it can be due to a large umber of other reasons. Read our article: Why Can’t I sleep? and learn what else can prevent you from falling asleep and staying asleep all night long.
Sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia which causes you to be unable to move your body or speak when falling asleep and when waking up from sleep.
Episodes of sleep paralysis can be very scary and cause you to feel anxious, threatened and afraid. They may also cause hallucinations during which you may see, hear or feel things that are not there.
Although sleep paralysis tends to first appear in the teen years, it may continue into your later years and it occurs equally in men and women.
Sleep paralysis is not life threatening and does not represent a serious medical risk, but there are some underlying sleep disorders and other factors which may contribute to it and addressing them may help you prevent sleep paralysis from happening again.