Sleep paralysis is when you can’t move or speak, but you’re fully conscious, and happens when you’re waking up or falling asleep.
It can be a strange and frightening experience, so if it happens regularly it’s important to understand how you can deal with it.
While it’s not known exactly what causes sleep paralysis, there are lots of things you can try to help prevent it. So read on to discover what these are, and when you might need to see a doctor for help.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is an abnormal sleep behaviour – what’s known as a ‘parasomnia’. It happens when your body is in sleep mode, but your brain is awake.
When you sleep, your body goes through several stages. During the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, your brain is very active and you can have vivid dreams, so some of your muscles are temporarily paralysed – known as ‘atonia’ – to stop you moving and acting these out.
Normally, this loss of muscle control only happens when you’re in REM sleep. But with sleep paralysis, it happens just as you’re falling asleep or waking up, so you’re aware of it.
How common is sleep paralysis, and who gets it?
Although most people won’t notice sleep paralysis very often, a surprising number of people may experience it.
There’s not much data, but it’s thought that anywhere between 1.7% and 40% of the population will get sleep paralysis at some point in their life. It can happen to anyone at any age, but symptoms usually first appear in younger life (7 to 25 years old).
Most people who get sleep paralysis will only have 1 or 2 episodes in their life. But a small number of people get it more regularly. This is known as recurrent sleep paralysis, which can be linked to another sleep problem or health condition (see below).
Symptoms: What does sleep paralysis feel like?
The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being awake, but unable to move or speak, which can last for a few seconds or several minutes. The longer it lasts, the more distressing it can be.
If it lasts for a longer time, sleep paralysis can make you feel panicky. You may also have hallucinations, which can make it even more frightening.
Sleep paralysis hallucinations can make you feel like:
- someone is in your room
- something is pushing you down or squashing your chest
- you’re flying or having an out-of-body experience
What does sleep paralysis look like?
Because you’re unable to move or speak, it would be impossible for anyone else to know you were in sleep paralysis. The only way someone will know is if you tell them when you come out of it.
What causes sleep paralysis?
The cause of sleep paralysis isn’t always clear, but it has been linked to:
- other sleep disorders – including narcolepsy, insomnia and sleep apnoea
- mental health conditions – including anxiety, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
- lack of sleep or disrupted sleeping patterns – because of jet lag or shift work, for example
- a family history of sleep paralysis
- fatigue and stress
- sleeping on your back
- drinking alcohol
What can you do to treat sleep paralysis?
What to do during an episode
There’s no proven way to stop sleep paralysis while you’re in it. But many people who have it find that trying to make small movements can help them come out of the episode more quickly – such as moving 1 finger, then another, and so on.
How to prevent sleep paralysis
There’s not much evidence to back up specific treatments for sleep paralysis. But because it’s often linked to sleep problems, getting enough good-quality sleep by improving your sleep hygiene and habits may help reduce your risk. To do this, try to:
- aim for 7 or more hours of sleep every night
- go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even at the weekend
- follow a set routine before you go to bed to help you relax – such as having a bath, listening to music and practising relaxation techniques
- keep noise and light out of your bedroom
- reduce how much caffeine and alcohol you drink – throughout the day, but especially in the evenings
- stay off electronic devices – phone, tablet, laptop, TV – for at least 30 minutes before bed
You could also try to avoid sleeping on your back, as this may increase your risk of a sleep paralysis episode. This is thought to be because lying on your back can make sleep conditions such as sleep apnoea worse, which can lead to sleep deprivation and trigger sleep paralysis.
Read more about how to get better sleep.
What to do after an episode of sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis can be frightening, so you can feel tired once you’re properly awake. Be kind to yourself and take some time to get up and rest for a bit longer if you need to. If you’re worried or scared, talk to someone you trust or make an appointment with your doctor.
If you’re having trouble sleeping and need some support, get in touch with The Sleep Charity.
When to talk to a doctor about sleep paralysis
Although sleep paralysis hasn’t been shown to be harmful, it can affect your sleep and mood, which can be hard to cope with. You should see a doctor if:
- you feel anxious about your symptoms or scared to go to sleep
- your symptoms leave you very tired or you keep falling asleep during the day
- you’ve been trying self-care but are still having episodes
If you’re not sure whether you should see a doctor, try our Smart Symptom Checker to help you work out what to do next.
How is sleep paralysis diagnosed?
No tests are usually needed to diagnose sleep paralysis. Instead, your doctor may ask you about:
- your symptoms, including how often you have them and what they feel like
- how much sleep you get each night and if you feel tired during the day
- your medical history and if you have a family history of sleep paralysis
- if you have any mental health conditions, such as anxiety, PTSD or depression
If the cause of your sleep paralysis is unclear, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for further investigations, such as an overnight sleep study. This involves tests that monitor your breathing, heart rate and brain activity to check if you have sleep paralysis and rule out other sleep conditions.
They may also measure your sleep quality and how quickly you fall asleep with a multiple sleep latency test. This can help diagnose sleep problems such as narcolepsy, which is a common cause of sleep paralysis.
Doctor-led treatments for sleep paralysis
If you have sleep paralysis regularly and self-care tips haven’t decreased the number of episodes you’re having, your doctor may be able to help by:
- treating any underlying sleep conditions
- referring you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help with stress, anxiety or PTSD
“Don’t underestimate the importance of a good sleep routine. Making sure you have the same rhythm – whether it’s a bath or bedtime reading – can help signal to your body that bedtime is soon. It’s also best to avoid sleeping on your back, so try a different position. Read more about the best positions for sleep.”