a woman suffering from sleep paralysis

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Everyone has been afraid of “things that go bump in the night” at some point or another, but for people dealing with sleep paralysis, this fear gets just a little too real. This bizarre condition is estimated to affect up to 50% of people at some point in their lives, and can lead to some legitimately terrifying experiences. Here is a look at sleep paralysis, including its symptoms, causes, risks, and treatments.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

Sleep paralysis occurs when a person experiences consciousness during sleep but is unable to control his or her body. Typically, this phenomenon is also accompanied by a feeling of heaviness on the chest or legs.

Because the condition is so unusual and unexpected, many people also experience feelings of fear during sleep paralysis—it’s often reported that there is a mysterious presence in the room when it occurs. In fact, some researchers hypothesize that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens or visited by ghosts are actually experiencing sleep paralysis.

Sleep Paralysis Causes

Sleep paralysis occurs when a person does not move normally between the different stages of sleep. In most cases, as a person passes into the deepest sleep cycle, known as REM sleep, the brain paralyzes the body’s muscles. This paralysis is supposed to be accompanied by a deep state of unconsciousness, but this does not occur in patients who experience the condition.

One of the most common origins for this sleep disorder is narcolepsy, which causes patients to fall asleep at unexpected times. Sleep paralysis is thought to be a side effect of this condition. However, narcolepsy is not the only potential cause. Jet lag, working a night shift, and other activities that disrupt a person’s natural sleeping patterns can also be a potential reason for sleep paralysis.

It’s believed that since dreaming takes place exclusively during REM sleep, this is the cause of hallucinations during sleep paralysis—people are literally living out their dreams in real life. The reasons that hallucinations during the experience are almost universally negative has to do with the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for creating feelings of fear. This brain region is particularly active immediately before and after REM sleep and can cause patients’ imaginations to run wild. What is normally an innocuous bedroom item, like a dresser or pile of clothes, can quickly turn into a supernatural intruder during this heightened state of fear.

Sleep Paralysis Risks

Medically speaking, there are no risks associated with sleep paralysis. While a person experiencing it is not moving through the stages of sleep normally, there is no indication that this alone has any negative side effects, aside from potential sleepiness the next day.

However, sleep paralysis can be emotionally traumatic, especially for those who experience it frequently or who feel like they’ve had an encounter with a malevolent being. In this case, talking with a mental health professional may be necessary to work through the fear associated with sleep paralysis.

Sleep Paralysis Prevention

Thankfully, there are several preventative measures that people can take to ensure that sleep paralysis does not occur. First of all, it’s important to get a healthy amount of sleep each night, which translates to roughly seven to eight hours for most adults. Sleep deprivation has been known to cause sleep paralysis, among other unhealthy side effects.

Secondly, it’s important that people experiencing frequent bouts of paralysis seek medical attention. As was mentioned earlier, sleep paralysis can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying sleep disorder, like narcolepsy.

Finally, it may be beneficial for people to sleep on their sides or stomachs. Sleep paralysis researchers have found that sleeping on your back increases the risk of the condition occurring. 

Last Updated: April 01, 2015