The Frightening Experience of Sleep Paralysis


Sleep paralysis can be an alarming experience. You may feel awake and aware, but unable to move or speak.

Along with this paralysis, you may experience hallucinations that feel vivid and real. Understandably, episodes of sleep paralysis can cause fear and anxiety.

As a psychologist, I often help patients who suffer from this phenomenon. In this blog post, I’ll explain what sleep paralysis is, why it happens, and provide techniques to manage episodes.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis refers to a temporary inability to move or speak when waking up or falling asleep. It is a sign that the body has not completed the full transition between sleep stages.

Sleep paralysis occurs when parts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep intrude into wakefulness. During REM sleep, your body is deeply relaxed to prevent you from “acting out” vivid dreams. The muscles become paralyzed apart from the eyes and organs necessary for survival.

In sleep paralysis, your mind awakens before your body has emerged from REM sleep. You regain awareness while muscle atonia persists. This leaves you conscious yet immobilized.

Sleep paralysis is common, affecting around 40% of people at least once. It is not directly harmful but can feel disturbing. Episodes often accompany hypnagogic hallucinations—imagined sensations that feel real.

Why Does Sleep Paralysis Happen?

Sleep paralysis occurs due to a timing issue in the sleep cycle. To understand why, let’s look at the stages of a normal night’s sleep:

  • Stage 1 – Light sleep as you transition from wakefulness. The muscles start to relax.
  • Stage 2 – Deeper sleep marked by slower brain waves. The body temperature drops.
  • Stages 3 & 4 – The deepest, most restorative delta sleep. Very difficult to awaken.
  • REM sleep – The stage when dreaming occurs. The brain is active but the muscles cannot move to act out dreams.

To progress through these stages, your body steadily paralyzes the muscles. In REM sleep, the paralysis is at its peak. To awaken, the brain must remove this paralysis signal.

Sleep paralysis happens when you wake up before that process finishes. Most episodes occur during:

  • Hypnagogia – waking up out of REM sleep
  • Hypnopompia – falling into REM sleep

In both cases, the mind awakens while muscles remain immobilized. With dreams still close, this can spark hallucinations.

Risk Factors for Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is more likely when disruption occurs in your sleep cycle. Contributing factors can include:

  • Insomnia – Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Sleep deprivation – Not getting enough sleep
  • Jet lag – Traveling rapidly across time zones
  • Shift work – Alternating between day and night shifts
  • Narcolepsy – A chronic sleep disorder
  • Sleeping on your back – Which can encourage REM sleep
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Medications that alter sleep cycles
  • Genetics – Sleep paralysis can run in families
  • Age – Most common in teenagers and young adults
  • Mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Chaotic sleep schedules
Sleep paralysis

Tips to Stop Sleep Paralysis Episodes

While seldom dangerous, sleep paralysis can be deeply troubling. Here are some methods to help prevent and interrupt episodes:

  • Maintain a regular sleep routine – Going to bed and waking up at consistent times reinforces healthy sleep cycles.
  • Get enough sleep – Allow plenty of time to rest. Most adults need 7-9 hours per night.
  • Be cautious with naps – Limit daytime naps to 20-30 minutes. Long naps can disrupt nighttime sleep patterns.
  • Reduce stimulants – Avoid caffeinated drinks, chocolate, tobacco, and other stimulants several hours before bedtime.
  • Exercise earlier in the day – Working out too close to bed can interfere with falling asleep.
  • Limit alcohol – Drinking before bed has been linked with sleep paralysis.
  • Sleep on your side – This position cuts down on episodes for some people. Avoid sleeping on your back.
  • Manage stress – Try relaxing activities before bed like yoga, music, reading, stretching, deep breathing, and meditation.
  • Seek treatment for underlying issues – Conditions like narcolepsy and insomnia may contribute to sleep paralysis. Discuss symptoms with your doctor.

Coping Techniques to Stop an Episode

When sleep paralysis starts, it can be alarming. While you cannot physically move, try using mental techniques to fully regain control:

  • Stay calm – Recognize this is a well-documented phenomenon that will pass. Avoid panic.
  • Breathe deeply – Slow, steady breathing helps relax the body.
  • Wriggle your toes or fingers – Focus on moving one small body part, then another. Gradually take back control.
  • Shift your gaze – Attempt to look side-to-side, up and down, repeating like a pattern.
  • Contract leg muscles – Tense and release legs to disrupt atonia.
  • Pursue positive thoughts – Self-soothe by imagining something pleasant.
  • Hum a tune – Engaging the vocal cords may assist in breaking paralysis.
  • Pray or recite a mantra – Something rhythmic and familiar may direct your mind.
  • Wait it out – If nothing works, know that it will pass in seconds or minutes.

As awareness returns, gently roll over and get up out of bed. Moving around helps verify you have full control again. Make notes about any triggers to avoid. Discuss persistent episodes with your doctor.

When to Seek Medical Help

In rare cases, frequent sleep paralysis can indicate serious health issues. Contact your doctor if you regularly experience:

  • Episodes multiple times per week
  • Inability to return to sleep afterward
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Vivid, repetitive hallucinations
  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Leg cramps or pain after episodes

These may require medical tests for underlying conditions. Be open about symptoms and ask about treatment options.

Sleep Paralysis Support and Outlook

For most people, sleep paralysis is an uncommon event that does not signal real danger. Still, it can feel quite unsettling, especially on first occurrence. Know that you are not alone.

If you regularly deal with sleep paralysis, there are online forums and support groups. Connecting with others who have had similar experiences can provide comfort.

Certain lifestyle measures and coping techniques often minimize episodes.

In challenging cases, consult your doctor about sleep studies or referrals to a sleep specialist or psychologist. With a combination of patience, self-care, and treatment, you can rest easier.

To discuss sleep paralysis or other sleep disturbances, schedule a consultation with me, Dr. Benejam, by calling at (561) 376-9699 / (305) 981-6434 or booking online at Dr. Benejam’s contact page