What is sleep paralysis and how can you prevent it?

The short of it

  • Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience where your mind wakes up and your body doesn't.

  • While it isn’t dangerous, over 30% of the population have come up against sleep paralysis at some point during their lives.

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

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

The long of it

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

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

That said, more than 30% of people still have experienced it at least once, and it is more common than colour blindness or being left handed, a study from Altitude Film Distribution, the company behind sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare, previously found.

What's more, 38% of those who have experienced sleep paralysis said they don’t understand it and liken it to a having stroke, dying, being abducted by aliens or possessed by ghosts, the survey of 1,000 UK residents also discovered.

So, while there is no official 'cure' as yet, what do we know about the mysterious condition so far?

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What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is when you cannot move or speak, either as you are waking up or falling asleep, according to the NHS.

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

  • awake but not able to move, speak or open your eyes

  • like someone or something is in your room

  • like something is pushing you down

  • frightened

Woman with sleep paralysis in bed. (Getty Images)
During sleep paralysis, your mind wakes up, but your body doesn't. (Getty Images)

What causes sleep paralysis?

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

More research is needed on why exactly sleep paralysis occurs, but it's thought to be linked with:

  • insomnia

  • disturbed sleeping 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

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How to how to stop sleep paralysis

While you can't guarantee eliminating it completely, there are some things you can do to help prevent it.

The NHS recommends you should:

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

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

  • get regular exercise, but not within four hours before going to bed

However, it also suggests you should not:

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

  • sleep on your back as this can make it more likely to happen

Woman lying on her side in bed. (Getty Images)
Sleeping on your side can help to reduce your chances of experiencing the paralysis. (Getty Images)

Sleep paralysis treatment

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

If this is unsuccessful, you might be referred to a sleep specialist doctor for further help. At this point, you could be offered medicine usually used to treat depression at a lower dose, which can help with sleep paralysis.

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

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

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

  • 'Reappraisal of the meaning of the attack' – reminding yourself that the experience is common, benign, and temporary, and the hallucinations are a typical effect of dreaming

  • 'Psychological and emotional distancing' – reminding yourself that there is no reason to be afraid or worried and that fear and worry will only make it worse

  • 'Inward focused-attention meditation' – focusing your attention inward on an emotionally-involving, positive object (like a memory of a loved one or event, a hymn or prayer)

  • 'Muscle relaxation' – relaxing your muscles, avoiding controlling their breathing and under no circumstances attempting to move

Watch: Why alcohol can disrupt healthy sleep

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

In the final month, the number of days with sleep paralysis fell to 5.5. (down 50%), and the total number of episodes fell to 6.5 (down 54%). Plus, the disturbance dropped to just 4.8.

In the control group, who instead engaged in deep breathing and repeated counting instead of the therapy, the number of days they experienced sleep paralysis was unchanged, as was the total number of episodes and the disturbance caused by hallucinations.

Woman at doctors. (Getty Images)
Don't delay in seeking help if sleep paralysis is affecting you. (Getty Images)

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

“Meditation-relaxation therapy led to a dramatic fall in the number of times patients experienced sleep paralysis, and when they did, they tended to find the notoriously terrorising hallucinations less disturbing. Experiencing less of something as disturbing as sleep paralysis is a step in the right direction.”

When to get help for sleep paralysis

The NHS website states you should see a GP if you often have sleep paralysis and feel very anxious or scared to go to sleep, and/or are tired all the time due to 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-Thursday 7pm-9pm (excluding bank holidays).