Understanding Sleep Paralysis: Recognizing Signs, Symptoms, and Effective Treatments

Understanding Sleep Paralysis: Recognizing Signs, Symptoms, and Effective Treatments

Sleep paralysis is a condition characterized by nighttime awakenings outside the REM sleep stage but the person is unable to move temporarily even though they are awake and aware. It typically occurs at the onset of sleep or when waking up and can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Sounds like a nightmarish experience, right?

Luckily, sleep paralysis only affects a small percentage of the population. However, this doesn’t downgrade the severity of the condition. For that reason, let’s have a closer look at sleep paralysis to recognize the signs and symptoms and learn about effective treatments.

Sleep Paralysis Types

Put shortly, there are only two types of sleep paralysis – isolated sleep paralysis and recurrent isolated sleep paralysis. The first is sleep paralysis which happens outside of other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Statistics show that 40 % of the population will experience isolated sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime.

The second type, recurrent isolated sleep paralysis (RISP), as the name suggests, is a parasomnia characterized by multiple episodes of isolated sleep paralysis. In other words, people experience it at least twice in half a year. Plus, RISP is commonly linked with remarkable anxiety, distress, or fear associated with sleep.

Sleep Paralysis Causes

Although researchers haven’t determined the exact cause of sleep paralysis yet, there are some risk factors associated with this parasomnia. Experts say that anyone can have such an experience when they are extremely sleep-deprived. It is also common that sleep paralysis happens alongside other sleep disorders that result in sleep deprivation, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy.

However, sleep disorders aren’t the only risk factors. Other major contributors to sleep paralysis are psychiatric disorders like social phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorders, anxiety disorders, etc. Indeed, those with sleep paralysis usually report emotional triggers, stressful events, or major work or life events leading up to a sleep paralysis episode.

In addition, other factors might contribute to having a sleep paralysis episode including exposure to traumatic events, alcohol consumption, and of course, a family history of sleep paralysis.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

Waking up unable to move is a hallmark of sleep paralysis together with fear, panic, and helplessness. But unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. These episodes are typically accompanied by various physical symptoms and terrifying hallucinations.

Here’s a brief list of the physical symptoms you might experience:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • A choking feeling
  • Sense of suffocation
  • Inability to speak
  • Limbs paralysis

Furthermore, the physical symptoms are commonly accompanied by very intense and frightening hallucinations which are divided into three types:

  • Intruder hallucinations – perception of a dangerous or evil intruder in the room
  • Incubus hallucinations – feeling as if you are being choked or suffocated
  • Vestibular-motor hallucinations – feeling like you are moving, flying, or having other similar out-of-body experiences

Sleep Paralysis Treatments

Last but not least, effective treatments for sleep paralysis, just like most parasomnias, focus on addressing the underlying sleep disorder or health condition contributing to sleep paralysis. Also, introducing lifestyle changes and making sleep hygiene improvements is of utmost importance. That said, if you suffer from sleep paralysis, you should:

  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment
  • Avoid sleeping on the back
  • Follow a relaxing bedtime routine
  • Stop consuming caffeine and alcohol, especially later in the evening
  • Avoid screen time for at least an hour before bedtime
  • Practice regular exercise