Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Sleep paralysis is a temporary impossibility of moving or talking either at the beginning of sleep or upon awakening. During this episode the senses and consciousness of the individual are intact, but they may feel as if they are under pressure or as if they are choking. This episode usually, does not last beyond a few seconds or minutes and can be scary most of the time. So if you have had a familiar experience of being unable to move or talk in-between falling asleep and waking up, then it’s just perfect you worry less about it.

Furthermore, Sleep paralysis is not life-threatening but can trigger intense fear and hallucinations. It can affect individuals of all ages and is common in adolescents and young adults (20s and 30s).

Research has shown that up to 50 percent of the world’s population is likely to experience sleep paralysis in one form or another at least once in their lifetime, and some people experience it far more often than that.

Another study reported that over 1.5 million people experience sleep paralysis annually in Nigeria.

Is sleep paralysis a cause for worry?


After various researches, Sleep researchers concluded that, in most cases, sleep paralysis is simply a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of sleep. Thus should not be a cause of worry.

Over the centuries, symptoms of sleep paralysis have been described in many ways and often attributed to an “evil” presence. Almost every culture throughout history has had stories of shadowy evil creatures and untraceable sounds that terrify helpless humans at night. People have long sought explanations for this mysterious sleep-time paralysis and the accompanying feelings of terror.

Causes of sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis is the distortion or fragmentation of the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle. That is, it occurs when portions of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep happen while you are awake.

REM is a sleeping phase when the brain is highly active and often there are dreams. Besides the eyes and muscles used in breathing, the body remains paralyzed and unable to move, probably to prevent you from performing your dreams and hurting yourself.

Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, but understanding what’s behind it can make it feel less stressful.

Although, there is no known cause of why REM sleep can sometimes occur while you’re awake, so far, it has been associated with:

  • Inadequate sleep – that is, depriving yourself of sleep (insomnia) or not having enough.
  • Irregular sleeping patterns – for example, because of Jet lag or shift work.
  • A family history of sleep paralysis
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Narcolepsy – a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times

Sleep paralysis does not take into consideration the current health status of an individual. It’s an occasional event that can occur in anyone even in people that are perceived healthy.

Symptoms to watch out for

The main symptom of sleep paralysis is being completely conscious of your surroundings but temporarily being unable to move or talk. Often times, this happens when you’re waking up, but can occur when you are falling asleep.

During an episode of sleep paralysis you may:

  • find it difficult to take deep breaths, as if your chest is being crushed or restricted
  • be unable to move your body when falling asleep or on waking. This can last for seconds or several minutes
  • have a sensation that there’s someone or something in the room with you (hallucination) – leading to intense fear in many people
  • not be able to speak during the episode
  • consciously remain awake.
  • Sweat more often
  • have headaches, muscle pains, and paranoia

When should you see a Doctor?

In many cases, sleep paralysis is a one-off and won’t happen again. It’s not harmful and isn’t usually a sign of an underlying problem.

However, it is ideal to speak to a doctor when:

  • you experience sleep paralysis regularly you feel very anxious about going to sleep or you’re struggling to fall asleep.
  • you feel very sleepy during the day, or have episodes where you fall asleep suddenly or lose muscle control – these are symptoms of a related sleep disorder called narcolepsy

A doctor can suggest ways to improve your sleep. If your symptoms are severe, they may refer you to a sleep specialist such as a neurologist.

You will be able to move and speak as normal afterward, although you may feel unsettled and anxious about going to sleep again.

Treatment for sleep paralysis

There is no specific treatment for sleep paralysis, but you can take certain steps to have better sleep.

Steps to take:

  • Make sure you are getting enough sleep each night – 6 to 8 hours of quality sleep is perfect.
  • Keep bedtime and wake-up time consistent, even on holidays and weekends.
  • Ensure a comfortable sleep environment, that is clean, quiet, dark, and not too cold or hot.
  • Avoid eating much quantity of food, smoking, or drinking alcohol or caffeine shortly before going to bed.
  • Avoid napping after 3.00 p.m. and for longer than 90 minutes – set alarm to this effect.
  • Exercise regularly, but not within 4 hours of your bedtime.
  • Manage any depression or anxiety disorder.
  • Avoid sleeping on your back, which has been linked to the condition. And talk with your doctor if you are experiencing any underlying mood issues that could contribute to your situation.
  • Getting good daylight exposure during waking hours.
  • Indulge in a daily ritual that is calm such as reading or listening to relaxing music.
  • Ensure to leave phones and other devices outside the bedroom.


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