What Is Sleep Paralysis?

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Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder characterized by a total inability to move or speak while in the transition between wakefulness and sleep,

It is typically accompanied by intense fear and vivid hallucinations that make it difficult for the person to distinguish between reality and dream. Symptoms can last anywhere from seconds to minutes, but generally don’t persist longer than 20 minutes.

People who experience this type of paralysis sometimes also suffer from other sleep disorders like narcolepsy so it’s important to be aware of any underlying issues when seeking treatment for this condition.

Sleep paralysis can be uncomfortable and frightening, but luckily there are treatments available that can help manage these symptoms.

Signs of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when you are waking up or falling asleep. It may last for seconds or minutes, but it can feel like an eternity of horror if you don’t know what it is.

During sleep paralysis, your body becomes paralyzed while your mind remains active and alert. You may be unable to move any part of your body, including the eyes, limbs, and head. You may also experience a sensation of being held down by an invisible force, as well as auditory hallucinations (hearing noises).

Despite feeling scared and helpless during these episodes, they are usually harmless and caused by disruptions in the normal transition between consciousness (wakefulness) and unconsciousness (sleep).

Below is a list of specific signs of sleep paralysis:

  • Feeling of being paralyzed or unable to move
  • Sense of pressure on your chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sensations of vibrations, floating, or tingling in the body
  • Abnormal heart rate and/or sweating
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there)
  • Feelings of fear or terror

Identifying Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is classified as a sleep-wake disorder associated with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

During REM sleep, the body is naturally paralyzed in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams. If this process is disrupted for any reason, it can lead to episodes of sleep paralysis. It usually happens during transitions between states of wakefulness and REM sleep, which can be triggered by stress, fatigue, certain medications, or changes in sleeping patterns.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single test that can definitively identify sleep paralysis and rule out other conditions such as narcolepsy or seizure disorders.

Causes of Sleep Paralysis

The exact cause of sleep paralysis is unknown, but it is believed to be linked to disruptions in the normal transition between wakefulness and REM sleep. Certain factors can increase your risk of experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis such as the following:

No matter what the cause is, it’s important to remember that sleep paralysis is not dangerous and does not cause any physical harm. The best way to reduce your risk of experiencing episodes is by getting good quality sleep on a consistent basis and managing stress levels.

Types of Sleep Paralysis

There are two types of sleep paralysis: Isolated Sleep Paralysis (ISP) and Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis (RISP).

Isolated Sleep Paralysis (ISP)

ISP is a single episode of sleep paralysis, usually caused by an irregular sleeping pattern or high levels of stress.

It is typically not associated with any underlying medical condition and can easily be resolved with some lifestyle changes such as getting adequate rest and managing stress levels.

Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis (RISP)

RSP on the other hand, is characterized by multiple episodes of sleep paralysis over an extended period of time.

This type of sleep paralysis is often linked to psychological disorders like depression or anxiety, as well as certain medications. Treatment for RISP usually involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Treatment for Sleep Paralysis

Treatment for sleep paralysis depends on the type and severity. For isolated cases, lifestyle changes such as improving sleeping habits or reducing stress levels may help reduce episodes of sleep paralysis.

In cases of recurrent or severe sleep paralysis, a doctor may prescribe medications to regulate REM cycles and/or recommend psychotherapy to address any underlying psychological issues.

It’s important to remember that episodes of sleep paralysis are usually harmless and do not cause any physical harm. If you find yourself frequently experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis, talk to your doctor about possible treatments available so you can get relief from this condition.

Coping with Sleep Paralysis

Below are some tips to help manage episodes of sleep paralysis and reduce the risk of further episodes:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule that allows for at least seven hours of uninterrupted rest each night.
  • Reduce stress by engaging in activities such as yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises to relax your body and mind.
  • If you have underlying psychological issues, seek professional help from a therapist or counselor.
  • Avoid using alcohol, drugs, or any substances that can disrupt your REM cycles.
  • Talk to your doctor about any medications you’re taking as some may cause disruptions in REM sleep.
  • Finally, if you find yourself experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis, try to stay calm and remember that it will pass.

Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, but with the help of treatments and lifestyle changes, you can reduce or even eliminate episodes of sleep paralysis. With proper management, you can get the restful sleep that your body needs.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."