Sleep paralysis is the inability to move even if you feel wide awake, usually right before falling asleep or just after waking up.

Imagine waking up in the middle the night without being able to move or speak. This is not as rare as you may think- affecting four out of 10 people, sleep paralysis causes feelings of being awake while at the same time being unable to move. In addition to paralysis, other common symptoms are anxiety and hallucinations. Read on to learn what triggers sleep paralysis how to get rid of it.

What Triggers Sleep Paralysis?

The exact causes of sleep paralysis are not fully understood. Researchers believe that multiple factors are involved in triggering sleep paralysis episodes. It does seem that sleep paralysis typically occurs in people who have poor sleep quality. It also appears that episodes can occur together with other sleep experiences, like nightmares.

People with sleeping disorders, such as narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea, report higher rates of sleep paralysis. In addition, studies indicate that sleep paralysis is particularly prevalent in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or who have experienced physical and emotional distress.

Other factors that may increase the risk of sleep paralysis include substance use, stress, jet lag, shift work, and other things that disrupt a regular sleep schedule.

Sleep paralysis is categorized as Isolated (where episodes are not connected to narcolepsy) or Recurrent (multiple episodes over time). These can be combined to reflect a condition of Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis (RISP).

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

An estimated 8% of people experience sleep paralysis at some point in their life. Episodes typically occur while falling asleep or waking up, and last from a few seconds to as long as 20 minutes – but usually around six to seven minutes.

This under-researched condition involves a mixed state of consciousness – combining both wakefulness and the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle. This means that the mental imagery of REM sleep and atonia (an inability to move that helps keep us from acting out our dreams) carries on even while we feel awake.

In addition to paralysis, other common symptoms are anxiety and hallucinations. Being aware of this loss of muscle control can be frightening, especially when combined with hallucinations. In fact, 75% of sleep paralysis episodes include hallucinations. They can involve a perception of an intruder or dangerous presence in the room – often combined with a sense of suffocation – or a feeling of flying or out of body sensation.

How to Get Rid of Sleep Paralysis

A good start to treatment is to speak with your doctor about your episodes. For many people, it is a big help simply to hear that sleep paralysis is relatively common and nothing to be ashamed about. Your doctor can also check for any underlying sleep problems, such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea.

Often the most effective way to help with sleep paralysis is by maintaining good sleep quality. Self-care goes a long way; improving daily sleep habits usually does the trick.

  • Avoid sleeping on your back. Research shows that sleeping on the back can be linked to increased risk of sleep paralysis. Bulk up some pillow behind your back if you’re prone to tipping over to your back while sleeping on your side.
  • Keep bedtime at a consistency. Go to bed at the same time each night. While you’re at it, try and keep a morning wake-up schedule as well. One that looks the same on both weekends and weekdays will do you the best. This way your body gets used to it and your natural built-in body clock will do most of the work for you.
  • Avoid napping. This can help you keep to a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Eliminate distractions in the bedroom. Don’t watch TV in the bedroom and don’t browse the web in bed. Keep soft lighting and try and block out loud noises.
  • Decrease or fully stop your caffeine intake close to bedtime. Experiment to see how sensitive you are to caffeine and make adjustments accordingly.

Living with sleep paralysis

Being able to disrupt sleep paralysis episodes as they occur by attempting to move your extremities, mouth or torso might also help you manage sleep paralysis. This helps reduce fear and distress – and can improve sleep quality.

Although further research is needed to better understand the causes of this condition, one thing is clear — healthy sleep patterns are at the heart of living with sleep paralysis.