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While quite normal, sleep paralysis can be frightening.

While quite normal, sleep paralysis can be frightening.
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Sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis occurs when you temporarily cannot move or speak upon waking up or falling asleep. While sleep paralysis is fairly common and does not cause any physical harm, it can be scary. There are some things you can do to reduce the risk of having an episode.

What is sleep paralysis?

During some stages of sleep, your body goes into a temporary paralysis, which may prevent you from acting out any dreams. Paralysis during sleep is normal, but you are usually unaware of it because you are asleep at the time.

If this ‘off switch’ persists for a few seconds to a few minutes after you wake up, you will be fully aware of being paralysed. You may find it distressing that you cannot move or talk, even though you can hear normally.

Sleep paralysis usually happens just as you're waking up, but can happen when you are falling asleep. Episodes of sleep paralysis can sometimes involve hallucinations, which may be frightening. For example, you may feel there is an intruder is in your room.

What causes sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis may occur on its own. It is not necessarily a sign of any problems. Sleep paralysis may also be related to medical conditions, including migraine, mental health (anxiety disorders), obstructive sleep apnoea, and a long-term brain disorder called narcolepsy. People with narcolepsy have extreme daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep, regardless of circumstances.

Sleep paralysis is also linked to:

  • not getting enough sleep (sleep deprivation or insomnia) or having regular disturbances to sleep such as shift work
  • irregular sleeping patterns, for example those experienced by shift workers or students, or because of jet lag
  • family history of sleep paralysis.

How is sleep paralysis treated?

In most people, sleep paralysis occurs so rarely that no treatment is needed. Getting enough sleep may reduce the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis. Most adults need between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night. Keeping to a regular sleeping pattern by going to bed around the same time each night may also help.

Other ways to improve your sleeping habits include:

  • reducing consumption of coffee and other caffeinated drinks
  • getting regular exercise, but not too close to bedtime
  • not drinking alcohol or eating big meals before bedtime
  • creating a relaxing environment.

People are often reassured to learn that they are not ‘uniquely weird’ in having episodes of sleep paralysis. However, see your doctor if the condition is severe or you are concerned it may be linked to an underlying health condition.

You may be referred to a specialist, such as a neurologist.

Last reviewed: April 2017

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