Sleep paralysis is, in its first definition, the inability to move during sleep. As explained in a previous article, the inability to move is perfectly normal during REM sleep (the phase of sleep where dreams occur), because the muscles are “disconnected” from the brain. It’s a physiological behavior that prevents your body from acting out your dreams, so that —among other reasons— you don’t knock out the person sleeping beside you when you dream of playing tennis. You’re not really aware of this behavior while you sleep, and in theory it ends when you wake up. Only sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s where things get weird.In some rare cases, during the transition from sleep to wakefulness (and vice-versa), you may find yourself in a state of sleep paralysis, where you can’t speak or move your body, but you’re completely conscious. This state can last from a few seconds to several minutes. In addition to not being able to control your body, which can be scary on its own, you may also feel delusive sensations like being choked, feeling a pressure on your chest, or even have hallucinations.If you were to experience sleep paralysis without knowing what it is, you would probably be scared, and it’s normal —who wouldn’t be? But is there really a reason to be scared? Can it be dangerous?
While we can’t give a precise number, the estimation is that around a quarter of the population experience sleep paralysis in their life, and the first episodes can occur during teen years already. While there is still debate around the heritability of this phenomenon, it is now clear that its appearance is linked to sleep habits. Factors like sleep schedules, lack of sleep, substances and medications can affect the appearance of sleep paralysis.Until this phenomenon was explained by modern neurosciences, it was often attributed to an evil presence in the person. Don’t worry, now we understand this phenomenon much better. Scientists have concluded that in most cases, sleep paralysis is just a sign that the body has a hard time transitioning smoothly between sleep phases. In rare cases, it is associated with more important conditions such as narcolepsy or psychiatric problems. But even in such cases, sleep paralysis is always the effect, and it’s never the source of the disorder.
Unless the episodes of sleep paralysis have an impact on your anxiety or your sleep, you shouldn’t worry too much about them. To treat sleep paralysis, it’s important to address the underlying causes: improving sleep habits, regulating your sleep cycle, or treating associated disorders for instance.At home, you should make sure to get enough sleep and relieve any stress you may have —meditation is your friend. If you usually sleep on your back, you should try other sleeping positions. Also, try to reduce the number of times you wake up during the night, since the transition between wakefulness and sleep is the critical moment when sleep paralysis happens. As many practitioners would recommend, it’s also important to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and using electronic devices in the evening —yes, that means no more scrolling on social media before sleep.There is no magic method to stop an episode of sleep paralysis when it happens. Sometimes another person’s voice or touch, or even a big effort to move can stop it. But in general, it ends on its own. Even though it can feel terrifying, there is no reason to be afraid of sleep paralysis. Knowing what it is should help you deal with the fear. If you happen to have an episode of sleep paralysis, remember that it will only last a brief moment and that it’s not harmful. You’ll be fine!