What is sleep paralysis and how to prevent it?

A third of us have experienced at least one sleep paralysis. (Getty Images)

The short of it

  • Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience where your mind wakes up and your body does not.

  • Although not dangerous, more than 30% of the population has experienced sleep paralysis at some point in their lives.

  • Sleep paralysis has been linked to conditions such as insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety, but there are various prevention and treatment options you can try to help.

Along this one

If you’ve ever had sleep paralysis before, you’ll know it can be scary, and if not, it’s probably not something you hope to experience.

But while it can be scary, the good news is that the brief paralysis itself is harmless and most people will only get it once or twice in their lifetime.

That said, more than 30% of people have has experienced it at least once, and it’s more common than color blindness or being left-handed, according to a study by Altitude Film Distribution, the company behind the sleep paralysis documentary The nightmarefound previously.

Additionally, 38% of those who experienced sleep paralysis said they did not understand it and compared it to having a stroke, dying, being abducted by aliens or possessed by ghosts, the survey also found. 1,000 UK residents.

So, although there is no official “cure” yet, what do we know so far about this mysterious disease?

Read more: Is taking a nap always a good idea? How to take a nap without harming your health

What is sleep paralysis?

According to the NHS, sleep paralysis occurs when you cannot move or speak, whether you wake up or fall asleep.

It can last up to several minutes, during which you may feel:

  • awake but unable to move, speak or open their eyes

  • like someone or something is in your room

  • like something is pushing you down

  • scared

Woman with sleep paralysis in bed.  (Getty Images)

During sleep paralysis, your mind wakes up, but your body does not. (Getty Images)

What causes sleep paralysis?

Technically speaking, sleep paralysis occurs when you are unable to move your muscles when waking up or falling asleep. That’s because you’re in sleep mode but your brain is active, the health service explains.

More research is needed to find out exactly why sleep paralysis occurs, but it is thought to be linked to:

  • insomnia

  • disturbed sleep patterns

  • narcolepsy (a condition that causes people to suddenly fall asleep)

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • general anxiety disorder

  • panic disorder

  • a family history of sleep paralysis

Read more: Anton Ferdinand says mum’s death caused sleep issues for months: ‘I woke up every night’

How to Stop Sleep Paralysis

Although you can’t guarantee its complete elimination, there are some things you can do to help prevent it.

The NHS recommends you should:

  • sleep regularly for six to eight hours a day if you can

  • go to bed at about the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning

  • exercising regularly, but not within four hours of going to bed

However, it also suggests that you should not:

  • eat a large meal, smoke, or drink alcohol or caffeine shortly before bedtime

  • sleep on your back as this can make this more likely

Woman lying on her side in bed.  (Getty Images)

Sleeping on your side can help reduce your risk of paralysis. (Getty Images)

Sleep paralysis treatment

In terms of official treatment, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sleep paralysis itself, but a GP might be able to treat any of the underlying conditions that may be causing it.

If that fails, you may be referred to a sleep specialist doctor for further help. At this point, you might be offered medications usually used to treat depression at a lower dose, which may help with sleep paralysis.

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Another option could be talking therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help you deal with your problems by changing the way you think and behave.

Separately, sleep paralysis could be treated using a “meditation-relaxation” technique, a 2020 University of Cambridge pilot study suggested.

The therapy, originally developed by Dr. Baland Jalal of the Department of Psychiatry, teaches patients to follow these four steps during an episode:

  • ‘Reassessing the significance of the attack’ – remember that the experience is common, mild and temporary, and that hallucinations are a typical effect of dreaming

  • “Psychological and emotional distancing” – remember there is no reason to be afraid or worried and fear and worry will only make things worse

  • ‘Inward Focused Attention Meditation’ – focusing your attention inward on a positive emotionally involving object (such as a memory of a loved one or an event, a hymn or a prayer)

  • “Muscle relaxation” – relaxing your muscles, avoiding controlling their breathing and in no way trying to move

Watch: Why alcohol can disrupt healthy sleep

During the first four weeks of the study, participants in the meditation-relaxation group experienced sleep paralysis an average of 14 times over 11 days. They reported that the disturbance caused by their sleep paralysis hallucinations was 7.3 (out of 10).

Over the past month, the number of sleep paralysis days has dropped to 5.5. (down 50%), and the total number of episodes fell to 6.5 (down 54%). Additionally, the Disturbance dropped to just 4.8.

In the control group, which instead practiced deep breathing and repeated counting instead of therapy, the number of sleep paralysis days was unchanged, as were the total number of episodes and the disturbance caused by hallucinations.

Woman at the doctors.  (Getty Images)

Don’t delay in seeking help if sleep paralysis affects you. (Getty Images)

“Although our study only involved a small number of patients, we can be cautiously optimistic about its success,” Dr Jalal from Cambridge said at the time.

“Meditation-relaxation therapy resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of times patients experienced sleep paralysis, and when they did, they tended to find the notoriously terrorizing hallucinations less disturbing. Live Less something as disturbing as sleep paralysis is a step in the right direction.

When to Get Help for Sleep Paralysis

The NHS website says you should see a GP if you often suffer from sleep paralysis and feel very anxious or afraid to fall asleep, and/or are constantly tired from lack of sleep.

You can also talk to someone about your sleep by calling The Sleep Charity’s National Sleep Helpline on 03303 530 541 Sunday to Thursday 7pm to 9pm (excluding bank holidays).

What is sleep paralysis and how to prevent it?

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