Have you ever woken up from your sleep, was aware of your surroundings and the fact that you were awake, but felt stuck in your own body? Perhaps you may have heard voices or sounds or maybe even seen things that weren’t there? If this resonates with you, then we’re here to tell you, no, you’re not going crazy. Instead, you might be experiencing sleep paralysis.
“Sleep paralysis is a behavioral state in which a person is conscious, yet their muscles are paralyzed,” says sleep expert and psychiatrist Dr. Eric Nofzinger, M.D. “This creates an uncomfortable state in which a person can’t move, yet they are awake and aware of their inability to move their muscles.” Sometimes, a person may also experience hallucinations when enduring an episode of sleep paralysis. There’s no doubt that the phenomenon is scary. People on Reddit describe their experiences as “terrifying” and “unnerving.” Others believe that their experiences are connected to paranormal activity and claim seeing demons in their hallucinations.
But what exactly causes these frightening encounters while asleep? And are there any ways to get rid of it? To find out, we tapped two doctors to learn more about sleep paralysis and how to deal with it.
What causes sleep paralysis?
According to New York City-based neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez M.D., sleep paralysis is caused by being in between a state of wakefulness and sleep at the same time. Typically, paralysis of the muscles occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which Dr. Nofzinger explains is the period of sleep associated with dreaming. “The paralysis to protect someone from acting out their dreams during sleep, allowing for them to stay in an undisturbed state of rest,” he says. When you’re experiencing sleep paralysis, however, this muscle immobility happens while one is still conscious.
No one knows exactly what causes this dissociation while sleeping, but studies have shown that sleep paralysis is linked to a family history of sleep paralysis, sleep deprivation, narcolepsy, excessive alcohol consumption, and/or increased stress, explains Dr. Hafeez. It’s also connected to mental health conditions such as anxiety, panic, and bipolar disorders. “It’s important to note that sleep paralysis is rarely linked to deep underlying psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Hafeez.
What are the symptoms of sleep paralysis?
The symptoms of sleep paralysis can vary per person, but the most common is the feeling of being awake but not being able to move your body. Dr. Hafeez says other symptoms one might experience are difficulty breathing, pressure on the chest, or having sensations and hallucinations that cause fear.
Usually, the hallucinations are temporary and caused by a neurological disturbance at the time they are occurring, she explains. These hallucinations can fall into three categories. The first is intruder hallucinations, where there is a perception of a dangerous presence in the room. The second is chest pressure hallucinations, which Dr. Hafeez says can cause someone to feel as if they are suffocating. These are often accompanied by intruder hallucinations. And the third is vestibular motor hallucinations, which involve out-of-body experiences or feelings of movement, like flying. Overall, most people report that sleep paralysis is not an enjoyable experience. While it is frightening, Dr. Hafeez explains that sleep paralysis does not pose any serious risk to a person’s health.
What are treatments for sleep paralysis?
The best thing you can do to combat sleep paralysis is practice good sleep hygiene, says Dr. Nofzinger. This will help minimize any potential factors contributing to sleep paralysis, like sleep deprivation, anxiety, or increased stress. “Take a look at stressors that might be interfering with your stable sleep at night,” he says.
Some tips for getting rid of those stressors and getting a good night’s rest are having a set routine for sleeping and waking up, practicing a relaxing nighttime ritual, like taking a bath, and making your bedroom as zen as possible, says Dr. Hafeez. “Reduce alcohol consumption and caffeine, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime, and eliminate all electronic devices 30 minutes before you wish to go to sleep,” she says.
If you’re having a chronic issues with sleep paralysis, both experts agree it’s best to seek professional help. Dr. Hafeez recommends seeking therapy, and Dr. Nofzinger says a sleep medicine doctor could also be of great help. “A sleep medicine doctor could reveal if there are any underlying conditions, such as narcolepsy, that could be leading to the episodes,” he says. Ultimately, you can rest assured that even though sleep paralysis isn’t fun, it isn’t permanent. So, try some of these tips or reach out to a professional to ensure you’re getting a good night’s rest.