All About Sleep Paralysis – not to be feared, not to be ignored

by | sleep disorders, sleep wellness

What is sleep paralysis?

You can call it a phenomenon, a sleep disorder, but essentially it is a (temporary) inability to move, speak and in some cases even open your eyes, while you are completely aware of everything happening around you.

Your body is sleeping but your brain is awake. It happens while a person is falling asleep (hypnagogic or pre-dormital) or waking up (hypnopompic or post-dormital). It lasts anywhere from few seconds to a few minutes.

man in sleep paralysis episode
sleep paralysis illustration

Sleep paralysis usually tends to “hit” young adults and teens and the experience itself is unpleasant and can cause a great discomfort. Some people never experienced it but to some it happens regularly, up to few times a month.

The main problem is that the episode happens suddenly, when the person is relaxed and most vulnerable and it usually ends on its own, so it leaves you with a feeling of fear and helplessness and often followed by vivid hallucinations.

Sleep paralysis stats

sleep paralysis stats age first episode

Connection to lucid dreaming

If you are reading this afraid of the experince, let us point out some data that clearly suggests that sleep paralysis is simply a trick of the mind, no matter how real the horror can feel.

People who explore the world of lucid dreaming (stimulating their mind to have concious dreams) are more likely to experince episodes of paralysis. The % among these people goes up to 40-42% (depending on which source you look at).

If there was anything “other-wordly” about the experince, there should be no difference in the numbers.

Let’s look at the stats among lucid dreamers – these are the responses they gave to the question, “Have your experienced sleep paralysis  and if yes, were you afraid?”

  • Yes, and I am. 10%
  • Yes, and I am not. 31%
  • No, and I am. 15%
  • No, and I am not. 39%
  • other responses 5%

How it feels

A lot of people say that while they were “paralysed” they had a feeling of something heavy sitting on their chest and blocking their breathing, or felt presence of someone in the room while they were completely alone.

The hallucinations are also very frequent. We might say that the worst part of it is not the temporary paralysis but the weird and scary sensation that the person is going through.

That’s usually how the experince is portraited in art & folklore, too.

sleep paralysis old painting folklore

What causes sleep paralysis?

In the past it was believed that it’s a “work of a demons”. Scientific explanation is that the sleep paralyses is a disruption of sleep stages. We simply wake up at the “wrong” time, a bit earlier than our muscles.

Hypnagogic (predormital) sleep paralysis happens in the beginning of a sleep cycle, in NREM (non-rapid eye movement) stages when we are just starting to fall asleep and our brain activity starts to slow down and muscles become relaxed.

At that point we are less aware of our surroundings and don’t notice the changes around us or inside our body. However if we do become aware we can notice our inability to move or speak.

man in bed eyes open

Hypnopompic (postdormital) paralysis occurs when we become conscious before the REM (rapid eye movement) phase has finished. The REM sleep is a stage when we have dreams during which our brain is very active to a level it works when we are awake, but our muscles are paralyzed.

Immobility of our limbs is actually a good thing because we can’t get up and act out the things we are dreaming of. So if our mind wakes up before our muscles in that stage we might experience it.

Stress, sleep deprivation, alcohol and drug abuse are known to be the triggers, and it also can be linked to other sleep disorders, from snoring to narcolepsy. Some mental conditions including anxiety, PTSD and depression are associated with it and it often “runs in family” so if one of your parents has experienced, it is more likely to happen to you.

Sleep paralysis and hallucinations

Sleep related hallucinations often come with hand in hand with the experience. They’re different from dreams because they occur in the space between being awake and sleeping.

They involve your senses but usually are mainly visual in a form of vivid images without any external stimulants, for example you can see a person or animal moving in your room when you know you are all alone.

They can be very complex and seem extremely realistic.

hallucination dark figure

You know you’re awake

The person experiencing hallucinations knows that they’re awake and if that occurs in a combination with paralysis it can be very disturbing. People with narcolepsy usually experience this during the day. The hallucinations can be followed with sleepwalking and sleep talking during the same night or as isolated episodes in different nights.

Two types of hallucinations

We distinguish two types of sleep related hallucinations: hypnogogic and hypnopompic. Hypnogogic can be more unpleasant because it often goes with sleep paralysis and the person is making a transition from wake state to sleep so any type of hallucination at that stage is more frightening in difference to hypnopompic when person wakes up and can relate any hallucination with a dream. There can also be the sensation of falling or being watched.

The blurred line between a dream and a hallucinations

Contrast between dream and hallucination is that the person after waking up clearly knows that she was dreaming while with hallucinations the line between dreams and reality is blurred so it can be very confusing. This phenomenon tends to happen to young adults and it’s most common between females.

The shadow people stories

Even if you don’t have hallucinations as an addition to sleep paralysis, the experience alone is often disturbing and frightening.

There are a lot of weird, scary stories from the people who have experienced it, but usually the base is very similar: the pleasant sleep is disrupted by suddenly waking up to notice that you can’t move or speak and you are not alone.

You have trouble breathing because something is pushing down on your chest, you can’t sit up or move your limbs, you feel a presence of some entity in the room that you can’t explain, there is an intruder or a demon. You become really scared and the panic grows, may even have an out-of-body experience.

halucintion shaddow people head

What science says

There are a lot of scientific explanations for this phenomenon, the main ones are related to brain activity in REM sleep, overlapping dreams, hallucinations and humans fight or flight defense mechanism.

The thing is that we are most vulnerable in our beds, sleeping, so if you believe in demonic forces the science is not going to help you a lot. In some countries a part of the national folklore are the stories about the demons that steal your life at night

Perception in different cultures

In Fiji it’s perceived as the dead relative who came to finish some business; in Turkey it’s the demon who literally sits on your chest and takes your breath; in China it’s a ghost; in Iran it’s a demon who takes bodies and it’s related to a dark magic performed by someone who wants to harm you.

The one of the most popular entities to be blamed is the so called “shadow person” (shadow being, black mass), a human-like living shadow. Some people describe these dark silhouettes trying to jump on them and choke them, some say they are aliens. All of them agree that they want to do harm.

The common theme is that this is some evil-doing and you should be scared, but in the end nothing really bad happened to the people who shared these stories, except for the experience itself.

The hat man stories

The “hat man” phenomenon is similar to a “shadow person” with some differences though. It is an entity that usually appears during the night, always wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a long coat, slowly floating like it has no lower body.

The hat man is described as a dark shadow with no distinct facial features. It centers around basement, doesn’t attack people and usually manifest itself when there is some sort of disfunction in the family.

It’s often the case that when one person in a household sees the hat man, it’s not long before the other members report seeing it, too.

the hat man

How to prevent or stop sleep paralysis

There is no special treatment for the “condition” unless it is a symptom of some bigger problem. Usually it happens just a few times in a person’s lifetime so it’s not treated as a disease. Actually the best thing is preventing it from happening.

Here are some ways of dealing with it naturally that might help you:

  • Eliminate or reduce caffeine and be well hydrated – there is no need to explain why, even people with anxiety disorder are advised to stay away from it, so if you drink a lot of coffee especially in the evening try to cut it down.
  • Turn off electronics – you may consider getting the tv out from your bedroom, it is proven to be very efficient.
  • No more alcohol and heavy meals before bedtime – your digestion slows down at night so if you pump your stomach with proteins, sugar, fat and carbs before going to bed you are really not helping yourself.
    Relax before sleep – have a hot bath, read a book, listen to the music that you like or go out for a nice walk. It will help you calm.
  • Sleep on your side – paralysis usually occurs when sleeping on your back. Also, if you sleep on a high pillow try to lower it, it can effect the blood supply to the brain. So, sleep positions do make a difference – for more on that read our guide on PROs and CONs of each sleep position.
  • Drink herbal tea milk. The chamomile for example has calming effect. And the milk increases melatonin levels. To read more about the most potent herbs for sleep – see our guide on the best tea for sleep.
  • Sleep more – you need 7 hours sleep on a daily basis, so your sleep phases (especially REM) can make full circles.
  • Make a routine – try to go to bed at the same time each night and spend the same amount of hours sleeping. If you take naps may they be around the same period of the day. Try to make a schedule and stick to it.
  • Talk to your MD about sleep supplements like Melatonin, it might be an option for you but it has it’s risks. People tend to take too much of it – you can see our guide on mush melatonin is too much and the response to questions like, “Can I overdose on melatonin?” in this guide.
  • Meditation – it is a proven, effective way of coping with the anxiety without medication. It helps you relax and be calm and in terms of couple of weeks you can see how you generally feel much better.
  • Keep a sleep journal – if you write about your nightmares you can look at them more objectively, often when we put our scary thoughts on a paper they tend to become less frightening.

Lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis

If we know that the experience is the transition between wakefulness and sleep can we do something to make that episode less tormenting or even pleasant?

The answer is: possibly.

But how?

Maybe lucid dreams are the answer.

We don’t know the cause, but we do know what often triggers it.

lucid dreaming concept whilrgig

Basics of lucid dreaming

If you are a believer or just want to try having a trippy experience here are some techniques for lucid dreaming:

  • Know the triggers – same as with trying to prevent a weird dream experince, you have to know what provokes it to happen so you can induce it.
  • Be prepared – keep a journal next to your bed and every morning write everything you can remember about the dreams you had that night, especially details that where clear indicators that you were dreaming (unrealistic things like dragons).
  • Let go of fear – this one is tough, but you should start telling yourself that what you are experiencing is not real and nothing scary is actually happening. After that you can try to shift into a dream. Close your eyes if they are not closed already, relax and just sink into the feeling. Then make a declaration of the thing you want to dream about, for example: “I want to swim in the pink ocean”. Imagine yourself doing that and if you are lucky the dream will start to form and become realistic. Don’t stop reminding yourself that you are dreaming. If you are having any trouble just go with the flow. Follow the feeling that you have, if you feel something is pulling you just let yourself go.
  • Don’t force it – if you feel the need to drift to sleep go for it. If you start panicking this will not work. You have to be conscious enough but relaxed.

Can sleep paralysis cause death?

Although it is scary and you can experience some trouble breathing it cannot cause death directly. You just have a feeling of asphyxiation but in reality there is nobody choking you.

Even a „sudden death syndrome“ has a medical explanation and it has nothing to do with the paralysis experience.

So, the answer is no, you can’t die from it, but you sure can feel like you are.

Treatment options

We already said that there is no cure for sleep paralysis but there are things you can do to stop it or deal with it better. Adopting a regular sleeping pattern is probably the first and most important step, try to go to bed at approximately same time each night, avoid caffeine and try to relax as much as you can before going to bed. You can read more here.

If your attacks don’t stop there are ways that will help you going trough this experience. When the episode happens try to stay calm as possible and observe the situation objectively.

Focus on controlling your breathing or moving a finger. Even trying to make a small noise can help ending the attack. Remember that it is just temporary, it’s something happening to a lot of people and it will soon pass.

In history & art…

Although the symphtom is scientifically explained the experience itself is so special that it’s often linked to paranormal forces and spirituality. It has a place in a lot of nations folklore.

Since ancient Mesopotamia we know the story about incubus, a female demon that torments people at night sitting on their chest, in Scandinavia they called her mara.

In British folklore it is known as old hag:

“This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, That presses them and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage.”

Queen Mab Speech, William Shakespeare

In Turkey people pray to Allah reading certain prayers from Qur’an to help them get rid of demons that are believed to cause it.

In south of US you can hear stories about „witch riding“

It’s clear that in a lack of medical research people held demons responsible for this phenomenon, and you can’t really blame them for that.

Conlusion – not to be feared, not to be ignored

For people that are experiencing this phenomenon it is of a great help to understand why it is happening and to have a logical explanation for the symptoms.

In some cases it can be a sign of a health problem like narcolepsy, so if this is something that quite often happens to you or you have some other symptoms it is recommended to visit a doctor.

Sleep paralysis on it’s own is seen like an isolated, harmless episode and it’s not treated as a disease or chronic disorder.