An Overview of Sleep Paralysis

close up of someone's arms while they sleep
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Sleep paralysis is not dangerous, whether you experience it once or repeatedly. If it happens to you while you are falling asleep, it's called hypnagogia. If sleep paralysis happens upon waking, it's called hypnopompic.

While an episode of sleep paralysis can be frightening at first, finding out what exactly happened and recognizing that it's not something more serious is usually enough to curb a person's fears.

(Isolated sleep paralysis occurs without any other symptoms and accounts for most cases.)

However, as multiple episodes occur, it can become more distressing. So, those who experience sleep paralysis more frequently may want to seek treatment.

An Episode of Sleep Paralysis

During an episode of sleep paralysis, you lay conscious yet paralyzed and unable to speak. This inability to move typically lasts from a few seconds to one to two minutes. It is rare for another person to notice this and intervene.

The episode may end when you are slowly able to move or when you start falling back asleep. Some people suggest that an alerting sound (a noise that wakes you) or another person’s touch can stop it. Others describe sleep paralysis as simply ending suddenly.

In a recent study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine, researchers interviewed 156 undergraduate students with isolated sleep paralysis. They found that:

  • 76 percent were afraid during the episode
  • 15 percent experienced significant distress
  • 19 percent attempted to prevent these episodes
  • 79 percent believed their attempts at prevention were successful

The Aftermath of Sleep Paralysis

After an episode of sleep paralysis, you may feel absolutely exhausted. The experience may be emotionally overwhelming and some patients wake up gasping or crying.

Other symptoms are sometimes reported, such as a rapid heart rate.

Many people feel crazy or embarrassed after the experience and may be unwilling to tell others about it. Some are even afraid to fall back asleep.

Sleep Paralysis Treatment

The first treatment step is to avoid potential triggers. Try to minimize sleep deprivation or undue stress and avoid other triggers such as sleeping on your back. In general, sleep hygiene guidelines may be useful, too.

For those who have multiple episodes and find sleep paralysis intolerable, medications such as a selective serotonin receptor inhibitor (SSRI) may be helpful. You may also need to address other conditions that disrupt sleep, especially psychiatric illness.

Even though sleep paralysis can be scary, the condition is not harmful when it occurs in isolation and will generally resolve on its own. Other treatment options are available if it becomes a recurring problem.

Sleep Paralysis and Narcolepsy

Sleep paralysis can also occur concurrently with the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological condition that causes disruption in your brain's ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles.

Sleep paralysis is one of a group of symptoms for narcoleptics that also includes:

For those who have narcolepsy, a unique set of treatments must be considered.

Sources:

Koran, L.M. et al. "Fluoxetine for isolated sleep paralysis." Psychosomatics: 184-7.

McCarty, D.E. et al. "A case of sleep paralysis with hypnopompic hallucinations." Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2009;5(1):83-84.

Morton, K. "Paralyzed at Night: Is Sleep Paralysis Normal?" Stanford Sleep & Dreams. 2012.

Spanos, N.P. et al. "The frequency and correlates of sleep paralysis in a university sample." J Res Pers: 285-305.

Takeuchi, T. et al. "Factors related to the occurrence of isolated sleep paralysis elicited during a multiphasic sleep-wake schedule."​ Sleep: 89-96.