an image of a man having a sleep paralysis
Last Updated on June 6, 2022 by Peter

Everything You Need To Know About Paralysis

If you’ve ever had a sleep paralysis, you probably know what we’re talking about. Experiencing a sleep paralysis can be a very scary, even traumatizing event. For everyone that doesn’t know what it feels like… Simply put, you are aware and conscious, but your body can’t move. Sleep paralysis causes an immense amount of terror in everyone experiencing it. That’s because the dream-like state is still at large, even though we feel fully awake, but immobilized.

Many people reported that during their sleep paralysis, they felt short of breath, anxious, scared to death, sensing an imminent danger or even a threatening, unknown presence in their close proximity. Luckily, although sleep paralysis can be frightening and very hard to shake off, it’s not a direct sign of any psychological or health issue. Sure, it can be caused by some, but in many cases it cannot be treated as a symptom. Many people, especially teenagers and young adults, experience sleep paralysis. We are going to teach you everything you need to know about it, and some of the best ways to avoid having them, for a night of good rest.

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    an image of a woman having a fear of sleep paralysis

    What is sleep paralysis?

    Sleep paralysis occurs when your body doesn’t have a smooth and efficient transition between the sleep stages/cycles. It’s not a sign of deep psychiatric problems – it can be caused by narcolepsy, for example, but isn’t a direct symptom. These kinds of episodes last up to a few minutes, but feel much longer. There aren’t many scientific evidence how and why do we have sleep paralysis, but the main cause could be bad transitions between REM sleep and other sleep stages.

    For those who don’t know, the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep is where we get the most rest. This is the stage we actually start dreaming in, and when it occurs, our whole body relaxes and stays immobile. The reason for immobility lies in the fact that we don’t want to hurt ourselves when we’re unconscious and dreaming. This paralysis is called REM atonia. People who sleepwalk, for example, have problems with this particular occurrence. REM stage of sleep is important for brain activity, as well.

    It can’t be determined exactly what happens in our brain when we are in the REM phase and dreaming. The most common theories are that our brain is processing information we’ve collected, managing issues we’ve encountered, or simply storing data. All of these are plausible, but what makes this phase particular is that we have abnormally increased brain activity – almost the same amount as we’re in a wakeful state.

    When does sleep paralysis occur?

    Sleep paralysis occurs when you don’t have a smooth transition in and out of the REM phase, causing you to wake and start being aware of your inability to move or talk. There are two kinds of sleep paralysis. One is when we’re falling asleep, called hypnagogic or predormital form, and the other is when we’re waking up, known as hypnopomic or postdormital form.

    • Hypnagogic form happens while we are falling asleep. There are some well-known sleep disorders, one of which is famous for going straight into the REM phase of sleep as soon as you fall asleep, skipping all of the previous stages. This is also associated with narcolepsy, which is a neurological disorder which affects the control over wakefulness and sleep states.
    • Hypnopomic form occurs most frequently in people and isn’t a symptom of any serious sleep disorders. We awake from the REM phase which hasn’t finished yet, but our bodies act like we still haven’t woken up, leaving us paralyzed. This causes severe anxiety and panic as we try to rationalize why that happened. Imagination has a lot of part in this situation, as our brain is trying to figure out the cause of panic and adrenaline rush – making up a threat to justify this feeling of fear.
    sleep paralysis projection
    That’s why this is the time where many hallucinations occur, with some unknown ghost-like presence in the room, frightening creatures or something similar close by. Sleep paralysis sensation was even described in art by demons sitting on our chest, making it impossible to breathe (1782, Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare is a prime example). It’s an occurrence that has lasted for centuries in humanity and it’s nothing to be scared of.

    Main causes of sleep paralysis

    Like we’ve mentioned, sleep paralysis can be caused by various reasons. It can be a symptom of some more serious sleep conditions, but it can be also caused by external factors which we can control. We can divide them into these two categories.

    Symptomatic causes:External causes:
    Hereditary/GeneticsSubstance abuse
    MigrainesSome medications (ADHD for example)
    NarcolepsyExtreme fatigue/Lack of sleep
    Sleep disordersSleeping on back
    Psychiatric patients/Personality disordersDisruption of sleep patterns
    Depression/Anxiety disorderAlcohol
    InsomniaLeg cramps

    The formerly mentioned symptomatic causes can and may be indicating that a certain psychological, hormonal, behavioral, or hormonal issue is the core of the problem. If this persists and aligns with other symptoms that may indicate a disorder, it is advisable to immediately seek guidance and help from a professional in order to keep it in check. The good news is, sleep paralysis can be suppressed if the underlying issues are treated accordingly!

    the connection between mental health and sleep paralysis

    External causes are things that you have control over! If you want to experience sleep paralysis less frequently, then you may have to deal with these causes directly. Substance abuse and alcoholism are the top causes of sleep paralysis and you need to seek professional guidance on how to get clean. Other things that you also have control of is how and when you go to sleep, what sleep schedule you have, your diet and medication choice.

    an image of drugs and medications

    How to avoid having sleep paralysis?

    As we’ve mentioned, there are some things that are in your control and you may have to face them head-on if you want to experience sleep paralysis less frequently. We are going to share with you some of the top advice for avoiding it:

    Sleep on your side or stomach

    Many people who have experienced sleep paralysis reported that they usually or exclusively sleep on their back. There is no scientific explanation yet as to why this happens most frequently in this position, but it definitely has something with sleep posture and comfort. If you are having troubles sleeping in other positions, at least try to alleviate your head more in order to keep your spine properly aligned, or even try sleeping in a half-sitting position. Sleeping on your side or stomach seems like an easier solution, though. You can try to do that with the help of some pillows or your partner. Make sure you have the right type of mattress for that, though. Sleeping on side or stomach requires a firmer mattress – but we’ll leave that for later in the text.

    a woman sleeping on side with bent arms

    Take care of what you eat before bed

    Yes, diet can also have an effect on how you sleep at night. Avoid heavy meals before bed – this can cause acid reflux and/or heartburn, and you don’t want that to happen – especially if you’ve just adjusted to sleeping on your back or stomach! Stomach and side sleepers usually have a problem with that, so a general rule of thumb is to leave a gap of at least an hour between a meal and going to bed. That way your stomach will have enough time to ingest the food you’ve eaten. Spicy food has become infamous for causing nightmares if eaten before going to bed, so make sure you don’t do that either. Light meals like turkey, avocado, cherries and oats are great if you’re feeling hungry.

    balanced diet before bed time

    Reduce stress

    Stress plays a big part as the cause of sleep paralysis. Everyday struggles, problems and conflicts can increase stress levels and make you feel anxious at night. Some extremely stressful situations such as going through a divorce or losing a loved one can also affect this condition. Find the right counseling and advice and make sure that you clear your mind before going to bed.

    Top 10 best ways you can relax before going to bed

    1. Meditation and breathing exercises can help you stabilize your heart rate and blood pressure, and also clear your mind from the stress that piled up during the day.
    2. Essential oils are really good for bedrooms – try and find a fragrance that relaxes you. Lavender has become famous for its calming effects.
    3. Music and white noise can also help you relax. Pick your favorite band and listen to it on speakers, or find relaxing and calming melodies for falling asleep. White noise is great for isolating other noises that might disturb your sleep and they also have a calming effect.
    4. Yoga, stretching and light exercise can help you relax your muscles and prepare for sleeping. If your muscles are tense from all the stress, you might be tossing and turning in your bed.
    5. Avoid screens for at least an hour or two before going to bed. Computer, tablet and phone screens emit blue light that can cause insomnia and many other sleep issues.
    6. Don’t drink caffeinated drinks. Coffee, energy drinks and black and green tea are all packed with caffeine which will keep you up at night. Instead, opt for jasmine or chamomile tea if you’re up for a warm beverage before bed.
    7. Spend some quality family time before bed. Play some board games or simply sit down together and catch up on what happened that day. It’s a great way to bond with family members and take your mind off stressful things.
    8. Write down your issues and dreams. Comprehending your problems is easier when you write them down. You will be able to get a firmer grasp on what’s going on and be closer to finding a solution. This goes for dreams as well. If you have some troubling dreams and sleep paralysis episodes, write them down.
    9. Don’t watch scary movies. Although the rush and suspense from horror movies can be thrilling and exciting, it leaves your brain restless for long after you’ve watched them. If you’re watching a movie, or reading a book before bed, make sure to take something light, and not something suspenseful.
    10. Consider talking to a sleep specialist if none of these work. They can help you find the right way to relax and solve your issues in order to get some quality sleep.
    a woman reading a book before bed time

    Sleep schedule

    If you want to get rid of the sleep paralysis episodes, make sure you have a proper sleep schedule. That means that you need to get 6-8 hours of sleep daily. Also, go to sleep and wake up at the same time – even on weekends. No, you can’t make up for lost sleep during the weekend, nor you will feel restful if you go to sleep at a different time every night. It stresses the body and mind in ways that you can’t even imagine. That’s why it’s one of the main causes of sleep disorders and insomnia.

    Make sure you are comfortable

    Restless sleep can be also the cause of sleep paralysis. Your brain needs to take its time to recuperate before getting ready to face the challenges of a new day. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure the environment you sleep in is comfortable enough to not disturb your sleep. Block off light, and isolate noise as much as possible. Make sure the room temperature is optimal – too cold or too hot can disturb your sleep. And lastly, a good mattress and pillow mean the world when it comes to quality sleep. Is your mattress too firm or soft? Does your pillow provide good support? You’ll know the answer when you wake up. If you have pain in your back, hips, neck or frequent headaches, maybe it’s time to replace that mattress and pillow.

    an image of a couple sleeping comfy in a bed

    What to do if it happens again?

    Coping with a sleep paralysis when it occurs can be hard. We usually go straight into panic mode as soon as we realize we can’t move. The good news is that usually dreams in sleep paralysis are lucid. That means you will be aware of dreaming in most cases. Here are some ways to cope when you have an episode and how to act after it’s over:

    • Many people claim that they consciously managed to end the sleep paralysis by trying to wiggle a finger or toe. Since in this case your body really is paralyzed because of the REM stage, if you manage to move some of them you may be able to end it yourself.
    • Accepting is another way of coping with this issue. It doesn’t hurt to say that it’s only your mind playing tricks on you. Your brain is working at a rapid speed and it’s trying to determine why we’re so afraid – making it even worse by creating an imminent danger to justify it. Just tell yourself that there’s nothing that can hurt you and wait it out. Eventually, it will pass.
    • Like we previously mentioned, a sleep journal is a great way to reduce stress and cope with these episodes. You can write down everything that happened moments after you’ve woken up. A bad dream or a sleep paralysis episode is a great inspiration for a story. However, this time you have the power to change the ending and write it the way you want it to end.
    • Lastly, if you see a sleep specialist or undergo psychotherapy, it can mean a lot for the future. Finding your own peace of mind and the direct causes of your sleep paralysis episodes is going to help you cope better and consequently decrease the frequency of episodes.
    counseling for sleep paralysis

    Things you didn't know about sleep paralysis

    Time for a little trivia! Sleep paralysis has been a known phenomena in humans even since the 17th century. It’s only in the recent decades that we managed to learn more about them and their main causes. Here are some fun (or scary) facts you definitely need to know about sleep paralysis:

    • Nope – you can’t die from sleep paralysis. It may feel like dying, but it’s only because there is a conscious transition between sleep and wakeful state.
    • Anyone can experience sleep paralysis. Even people who haven’t ever had a sleep paralysis episode, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to them. Like we mentioned, stress, substance abuse and alcohol can all induce an episode.
    • Many people associate sleep paralysis with astral projection. Often during an episode, people have reported seeing themselves in third person – a phenomenon called autoscopy.
    • You can dream about monsters, strangers or ghosts, but many people also report experiencing sexual harassment or assault (not real, just the sensation) during a sleep paralysis episode.
    • There is a huge difference between sleep paralysis and night terrors, and they are not to be mixed. The main difference is that night terrors are dangerous for the experienced and their surroundings. Night terrors cause them to suddenly jump/sit up, wave arms or legs, possibly hurting themselves or their partner.
    • Many people who experienced sleep paralysis also believed that they were abducted by aliens because of the sensations they experienced.
    • Many demons, mythical creatures and monsters from mythologies and folklore, stem their origins from sleep paralysis. Some included are: old witches or hags that sit on your chest trying to steal your breath (because of the sensation of lack of breath when we have an episode), succubuses and incubuses (which in folklore are malevolent demons of sexual nature) and gremlins and other monsters, shapeshifters, and of course, vampires.
    sleep paralysis and fear of falling

    Are you ready to face your demons?

    We’ve come to a conclusion – sleep paralysis is frightening, but not fatal or a direct indication of a major health issue. It can be tough to shake off, it may leave you restless for the rest of the day, and we get it. No one likes to fight demons or murderers, or rather yet, lie motionless while they wreak havoc in our dreams. The most important thing to have in mind is to, of course, be aware that it will soon be over. Reduce stress as much as possible, and when it happens, just wait it out. Hopefully, there will be more research conducted about this phenomena and we will be able to learn more about it in the future. We’re certain that a lot of people are eager to hear about it in the foreseeable future.

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