FYI: It's more common than you probably realize.

By Lisa Haney and Taylyn Washington-Harmon
March 14, 2017
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Picture this: You're curled up in bed, light streaming through your windows, and you're ready to roll over and start your day—but for a few moments, you can't move. Your mind is awake and your eyes can see, but it's as though your body is still sleeping.

Terrifying, right? This phenomenon is called sleep paralysis, a short period between sleep and wakefulness where you’re unable to move or speak. While sleep paralysis is frightening, it's more common than you may realize: “About 40% of the population has had at least one episode of sleep paralysis,” Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, medical director of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center in Redwood City, California, tells Health.

Worried about whether you’re experiencing this? Here’s what you need to know, including sleep paralysis symptoms to look out for, how to treat the condition, and when to seek help.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis occurs when you’re in a borderline state between sleep and consciousness as you’re dozing off or waking up, says Dr. Kushida. During an episode of sleep paralysis, you're entirely aware of what's going on, according to the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus resource. 

To better understand sleep paralysis, it's helpful to understand the entire sleep cycle, which consists of multiple stages, from light drowsiness to deep sleep, per MedlinePlus. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the sleep stage in which eyes move quickly, your body relaxes and muscles don't move, and vivid dreaming commonly occurs—and your body goes through several cycles of non-REM and REM sleep each night.

While researchers aren't entirely sure why sleep paralysis happens, some believe it's linked to REM sleep. “One theory is that there’s some crossover with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also known as dream sleep,” Neil Kline, DO, a sleep disorder physician in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and a representative of the American Sleep Association, tells Health. “During REM sleep we are muscle-atonic, which means we’re essentially paralyzed. It’s believed to be an evolutionary action that occurred to protect us from hurting ourselves while we’re dreaming.” Thus, sleep paralysis may happen when your brain wakes up from REM sleep, but your body is still in REM mode, per MedlinePlus. 

While episodes of sleep paralysis can feel like an eternity, they commonly last for just a few seconds, or up to one or two minutes. The episodes can end on their own, or when you are touched or moved, according to MedlinePlus. In rare cases, sleep paralysis can cause dream-like sensations or hallucinations.

What causes sleep paralysis?

No one knows the exact cause of sleep paralysis, but according to MedlinePlus, research shows it has been linked to the following habits or feelings:

  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Having an irregular sleep schedule (shift workers, in particular)
  • Mental stress
  • Sleeping on your back

Sleep deprivation or episodes of high stress may make you particularly susceptible to sleep paralysis. “The sleep paralysis you’re thinking of happens when people are having disturbed sleep or if you've stayed up late studying or what not, and during periods of high stress situations," W. Chris Winter, MD, a sleep special and president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, tells Health

Sleep paralysis may also be a symptom of narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes severe, excessive daytime sleepiness, Dr. Kline says. It may also be a sign that you have sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder, in which your legs twitch or jerk during sleep, Dr. Kushida says.

Other factors that can contribute to sleep paralysis include drinking alcohol before bed and even taking certain medications that suppress REM sleep like antidepressants or mood stabilizers like lithium, Dr. Winter adds. 

How to treat sleep paralysis

Preventing or treating sleep paralysis starts with practicing good sleep hygiene. “The best advice for avoiding sleep paralysis is to make sure you get enough total sleep time,” Dr. Kline says. “With the amount of distractions and societal demands, sleep deprivation has become a significant problem for all age groups.” On average, most adults need about eight hours a night, he says. Dr. Winter adds that those eight hours should be consecutive. “Make sure your sleep is regular and happening at the same time every day. It's not just eight hours whenever you can get it," he says.

Trying to avoid stress as much as possible or taking steps to minimize stress may also help lessen the frequency of sleep paralysis if you’re predisposed to it, Dr. Kushida says.

Most of the time, though, sleep paralysis occurs so rarely that treatment is not needed. But if your sleep paralysis occurs frequently and disturbs your quality of life, it may be time to see a doctor, who can rule out or diagnose other sleep issues and get you the help you need.

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