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Sleep paralysis Content Supplied by NHS Choices
Introduction

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when you're waking up or falling asleep.

It's not harmful and should pass in a few seconds or minutes, but can be very frightening.

Many people have sleep paralysis once or twice in their life, while others experience it a few times a month or more regularly.

It affects people of all ages and is most common in teenagers and young adults.

This page covers:

Symptoms

When to see your GP

Causes

Treatments

Symptoms of sleep paralysis

The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being completely aware of your surroundings but temporarily being unable to move or talk.

This usually occurs as you're waking up, but can happen when falling asleep.

During an episode of sleep paralysis you may:

  • find it difficult to take deep breaths, as if your chest is being crushed or restricted
  • be able to move your eyes - some people can also open their eyes but others find they can't
  • have a sensation that there's someone or something in the room with you (hallucination) - many people feel this presence wishes to harm them
  • feel very frightened

The length of an episode can vary from a few seconds to several minutes.

You'll be able to move and speak as normal afterwards, although you may feel unsettled and anxious about going to sleep again.

When to see your GP

In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off and won't happen again. It's not harmful and isn't usually a sign of an underlying problem.

But it's a good idea to see your GP if:

  • you experience sleep paralysis regularly
  • you feel very anxious about going to sleep or you're struggling to get enough sleep
  • you feel very sleepy during the day, or have episodes where you fall asleep suddenly or lose muscle control - these are symptoms of a related sleep disorder called narcolepsy

Your GP can suggest ways to improve your sleep (see Treatments below for more information). If your symptoms are severe, they may refer you to a sleep specialist such as a neurologist.

Causes of sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis happens when parts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occur while you're awake.

REM is a stage of sleep when the brain is very active and dreams often occur. The body is unable to move, apart from the eyes and muscles used in breathing, possibly to stop you acting out your dreams and hurting yourself.

It's not clear why REM sleep can sometimes occur while you're awake, but it has been associated with:

  • not getting enough sleep (sleep deprivation or insomnia)
  • irregular sleeping patterns - for example, because of shift work or jet lag
  • narcolepsy - a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times
  • a family history of sleep paralysis

In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off or very occasional event that occurs in someone who is otherwise healthy.

Treatments for sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis often gets better over time, but improving your sleeping habits and sleeping environment may help.

It can help to:

  • get a good night's sleep - most adults need six to eight hours of good quality sleep a night
  • go to bed at roughly the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning
  • create a sleeping environment that's comfortable, quiet, dark and not too hot or cold
  • avoid eating big meals, smoking, or drinking alcohol or caffeine shortly before going to bed
  • get regular exercise (but not within four hours of going to bed)

Read more about how to improve your sleep habits.

If your sleep paralysis is particularly severe, a specialist doctor may suggest taking a course of antidepressant medication, such as clomipramine.

These work by altering REM sleep and are typically prescribed at lower doses than when used for depression.

"I had a feeling of immense panic"

Gareth Fletcher regularly had sleep paralysis when he was a teenager. Although it has virtually stopped, he still experiences it very occasionally.

"I first experienced sleep paralysis when I was 16. I remember it vividly. I went to bed one night as usual, but at some point I woke up and was unable to move a muscle. I was conscious and aware that I was in my bed, but my entire body was paralysed.

"It may have only lasted a matter of seconds, but the experience was terrifying. There was a ringing noise in my ears that seemed to get louder, and no matter how hard I struggled, I couldn't move. I had a feeling of immense panic, and an urgent need to move my arms and legs.

"Then suddenly I could move again. While this was a great relief, I was still scared as I had no idea what had just happened.

"The same thing happened again a few nights later, and then it began to happen regularly. It would sometimes happen a couple of times in the same night.

"I became nervous about going to sleep - worried that every time I went to bed I'd wake up and be unable to move. Even though the paralysis was only temporary, it was very frightening.

"I would often wake up suddenly after having a vivid dream. Sometimes this was an unpleasant dream, which made the experience even scarier.

"I didn't tell anybody about it at first. This was partly because I began to doubt that it was really happening. I thought perhaps I was dreaming it, and although it seemed very real at the time, perhaps it was just a nightmare in which I couldn't move.

"Also, it happened as I was falling asleep early in the night. By the time I'd woken up in the morning, it didn't seem to matter so much and I tried to forget it had happened.

"Then one day at school, I overheard a friend talking about a documentary he'd seen about this very phenomenon. It was the first time I'd heard the term 'sleep paralysis', and it perfectly described what happened to me, although my friend mentioned that the people on TV had also felt a presence in the room and a pressure on their chest when they woke up, which I hadn't had.

"Knowing that it had a name was a relief. I told my parents about it, and my dad said it happened to him once when he was younger. My mum has since said it once happened to her too.

"My mum then told our GP, who said it was nothing to worry about and that little was really known about it. The GP did say she thought it may be linked to stress.

"The sleep paralysis kept happening, but I no longer felt so panicked by it. It was still very unpleasant and I had a desperate need to move every time I woke up, but I just told myself that it was nothing sinister and I'd be able to move in a few seconds.

"And then it stopped happening, almost overnight, when I went to university. It's odd, but it only seemed to happen when I was in my bed at home. After I left, it virtually disappeared.

"It does happen now, but only very rarely. It can still be frightening, mainly because of the disorientation you feel when you suddenly wake up and can't move. But knowing what's happening and that it's nothing to worry about makes it bearable, and I'm usually able to relax and get back to sleep quickly."

 
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