Imagine waking up and being unable to move or speak. While you might think this sounds like the stuff of nightmares, for the estimated 7.6% of the population who have experienced sleep paralysis1, it’s a very real occurrence.
Whether you suffer from sleep paralysis, or you’re just curious about it, we have the answers to all your burning questions.
What is sleep paralysis?
During the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep — also known as the ‘dreaming’ stage — the muscles enter a ‘paralysis’ mode. This is believed to safeguard the body from physically acting out dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when the mind wakes up but the body stays in this paralysis mode — rendering sufferers temporarily immobile.
Is it dangerous?
While sleep paralysis can be frightening and is undoubtedly unpleasant, it’s not harmful, and within a few minutes, the body ‘wakes up’ and can move again.
What causes it and who’s most likely to experience it?
While there’s no known cause of sleep paralysis, various factors have been associated with the disorder, including insomnia or sleep deprivation, irregular sleeping patterns, and jet lag. Certain medical conditions have also been linked to sleep paralysis, including narcolepsy — a neurological disorder causing excessive daytime sleepiness – and some mental health issues2,3.
Interestingly, a 2011 study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews analysed data from a number of research papers, and found students and psychiatric patients appeared to be significantly more at risk of the disorder, with 28.3%, and 31.9% affected respectively.
Reasons for these higher rates of sleep paralysis are unclear, but the author of the study suggested it’s possible that both groups experience regular sleep disturbances, which is a factor associated with the disorder.
Can you treat or prevent it?
For most people, sleep paralysis is usually a one-off or rare occurrence that ceases on its own, so no treatment is needed. And while there’s no one sure-fire way of preventing an episode, these tips could help:
- Get enough sleep: Given sleep paralysis has been linked to sleep deprivation, simply getting enough sleep may help prevent an episode. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep a night, so if you’ve been experiencing sleep paralysis and missing this quota, try to get some quality shut eye.
- Form a routine: For some — such as new parents or shift workers — irregular sleeping patterns are unavoidable. However if you do have some control over your sleep routine, try to stabilise it by going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day.
- Night time no-nos: Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking within a few hours of going to bed — particularly if you’re someone who’s extra sensitive to stimulants.