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What is Sleep Paralysis?

Updated on April 26, 2016
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It is estimated that up to 60% of all people will experience sleep paralysis at some point during their lives. It is by far the most common sleep disorder and can also be one of the most terrifying. In popular culture sleep paralysis is often associated with hauntings and other supernatural events, though there is some evidence to suggest that the lore surrounding sleep paralysis has grown out of the very real symptoms that are associated with this disorder. What many people think is a ghost or a spirit attacking them, pressing down on their chest, and paralyzing them is actually simply sleep paralysis. But what exactly is sleep paralysis? What are its signs and symptoms? And are there any treatments that can help those that regularly battle this issue?

What is Sleep Paralysis?

If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night, been fully conscious, but have also been unable to move, you have probably experienced sleep paralysis. You are awake, technically, but your body isn’t. It is a stage between being fully awake and fully asleep, your mind is awake, but the body is still at a stage of relaxation where you cannot use your muscles. During this time, you may not be able to speak and until you either fall back asleep or wake up fully, you will not be able to move your limbs—this is what makes sleep paralysis so scary.

Some people will only experience sleep paralysis once or twice during their lifetimes. Some may never experience it. Others will regularly wake up with a feeling of pressure on their chest and an inability to move. Many who experience this regularly may also have hallucinations, leading to some believing that they are actually being pinned down by a demon, which you may or may not find plausible, depending on your beliefs. As scary as sleep paralysis is, it is ultimately not dangerous. If your fear comes only from being unable to move your body, and not from a hallucination, understanding the reality of sleep paralysis and what you can do to calm yourself or combat the paralysis can be helpful.

Related Disorders

One of the most common sleep disorders that is paired with paralysis is night terrors. While most people associate night terrors with fitful, terrifying dreams, they may also result in a person waking up in a state of sleep paralysis. Researchers who surveyed women who experience sleep paralysis found that those who have a combination of paralysis and night terrors were more likely to experience hallucinations while paralyzed.

Some people may also have a period of disassociation from their bodies. They may feel like they are disconnected or floating above their bodies. Others experience a sensation of falling or floating in water. In many cases, those who have these sensations also feel threatened, afraid, or confused during their periods of sleep paralysis. Many who do believe in the supernatural will associate these experiences with those supernatural beliefs. Again, take that as you will. If you believe in the supernatural, you may also believe that it is possible that some of these cases are the work of entities. If you do not believe, all may be attributed to real sleep paralysis and the symptoms that come along with it.

Common Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

The most common symptom is also the most obvious: paralysis. How long it lasts and what exactly it feels like will vary from person to person, but even if it lasts only a minute, it can still be frightening, especially for those who have never experienced it before.

Another common symptom is feeling pressure on the chest or even feeling like you are choking. This will only amp up the fear of the person experiencing it, even though internally panicking is not likely to help the outward fear and paralysis.

Most people feel awake and know that they are awake. Most people can and will feel fear and even paralysis while dreaming, but most people are also capable of knowing when they are in a dream and when they are experiencing something in reality. Those who experience sleep paralysis, almost across the board, understand that they are both awake and yet, are unable to move. They can see their environment and it looks, and, more importantly, feels real. There is none of the strangeness that accompanies even realistic dreams.

Real feelings of dread and fear are symptoms of sleep paralysis. While not everyone will experience these symptoms, the majority of those who wake up to find themselves paralyzed do. These feelings can be extremely intense and can later be very difficult to describe, especially to someone who has never experienced sleep paralysis of any kind.

Even feeling that there is something else in the room with you is a documented symptom of sleep paralysis—this is not just something that those who believe in the supernatural have felt, it is something that many people feel. Rarely, there are other symptoms like smelling, seeing, or hearing things that are not actually there.

Preventing or Treating Sleep Paralysis

Many researchers and doctors theorize that sleep paralysis is a symptom of a larger sleep disorder. It indicates that the mind and the body are not on the same page when it comes to the sleep cycle. Getting the body back on that more normal sleep cycle often helps to lessen or even eliminate this issue. What are some of the suggestions professional give for those looking to prevent or treat their sleep paralysis? Here are a few that might work, especially if you only occasionally experience paralysis.

First, stop drinking caffeine after two in the afternoon. Caffeine can seriously disrupt your sleep schedule and can make it difficult for your body and mind to calm down enough to get a good night’s sleep. Also, avoid smoking, chewing tobacco, alcohol, and anything else that is known to stimulate the body or disrupt sleep. Keeping any screens, from desktops to laptops to tablets to smartphones out of the bedroom will also prevent the mind being woken up by sounds and lights.

Sleep deprivation is often related to sleep paralysis, and because of the fear that often comes along with sleep paralysis, the two can work in a vicious circle, turning you into an insomniac. If your experiences with sleep paralysis are starting to ramp up, it may be because you are becoming more and more sleep deprived. In this instance, it may be necessary to take real steps to start improving your sleep schedule.

One of these steps might be to meet with a doctor or a naturalist who can help you find something to take for your sleep issues. Any other physical disorders that may be waking you up during the night should also be dealt with.

As a final note, it is important to remember that while sleep paralysis can be frightening, it is not dangerous. Analytically thinking about the situation as it is happening to you can prevent the distress, fear, and dread that often accompanies this condition.

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    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 

      2 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      I had never heard of sleep paralysis before. It must be absolutely terrifying.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Interesting hub. I experienced what seems to have been sleep paralysis a number of times earlier in my life, but not at all in recent years. As I remember it, it was a bit scary straining to move and being unable to. I think most of the time after that period of trying to move, I went back to sleep and woke normally. As you say, these episodes don't appear to have done me any harm.

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