Sleep Paralysis Explained: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Sleep Paralysis Explained: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

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Sleep Paralysis Explained: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

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What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a descriptive term that means being unable to move even though one feels conscious. It takes place when an individual passes between stages of sleep and wakefulness.

During such a transition, a person may be unable to speak or move for anywhere from several seconds to several minutes. Some individuals even feel a sense of choking or an odd sensation of pressure.

Sleep paralysis–or more accurately, the ability to be aware of it as it occurs–may accompany narcolepsy or other sleep disorders. Narcolepsy is a condition during which the brain fails to properly regulate sleep, resulting in sporadic, uncontrollable naps.

Three Phases of Sleep Paralysis

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two primary phases of sleep paralysis. These are hypnopompic and hypnagogic, also referred to as post-dormital and pre-dormital, respectively.

The type of sleep paralysis referred to as hypnopompic occurs when one is waking up, while the hypnagogic type occurs when the person is falling asleep.

Hypnagogic Phase

The hypnagogic phase occurs when a person is attempting to go to sleep. As one drifts off, his or her body slowly relaxes.

Typically, the person does not notice this change, as by that time he or she has become less aware of the surroundings.

However, if conscious awareness occurs during the hypnagogic phase, the individual will realize that moving and speaking are essentially impossible.

Hypnopompic Phase

During sleep, the human body alternates between rapid eyeball movement–REM–and non-rapid eyeball movement–NREM–sleep.

It takes approximately 90 minutes for the body to go through one cycle of REM sleep and one cycle of NREM sleep.

The NREM sleep cycle takes place first, and is the cycle that makes up approximately 75 percent of a person’s overall sleep time. During this phase, the body goes into deep relaxation and restores itself to the best of its ability.

Hypnopompic Phase

During sleep, the human body alternates between rapid eyeball movement –REM–and non-rapid eyeball movement–NREM–sleep. It takes approximately 90 minutes for the body to go through one cycle of REM sleep and one cycle of NREM sleep.

The NREM sleep cycle takes place first, and is the cycle that makes up approximately 75 percent of a person’s overall sleep time. During this phase, the body goes into deep relaxation and restores itself to the best of its ability.

When the cycle is over, the REM cycle takes place. During REM sleep, dreams occur and the eyes move very quickly; however, the rest of the body maintains a relaxed state.

For example, muscles are nonfunctional and in a somewhat frozen state. If a person becomes mentally aware prior to the end of the REM cycle, which occurs just before awakening, he or she will notice that it is impossible to speak or move.

Causes of Sleep Paralysis

The Narcolepsy Factor

Sleep paralysis is most often associated with narcolepsy, a neurological condition in which a person takes uncontrollable naps, brought on by sleepiness that cannot be overcome. However, many individuals have experienced sleep paralysis who do not have narcolepsy or any of its symptoms.

Panic Attacks and Their Link to Sleep Paralysis

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, sleep paralysis may be tied to panic attacks. It is thought that the person usually suffers from panic attacks for several years before episodes of sleep paralysis occur, although the reason for this is not yet known.

Interesting Sleep Paralysis Facts

• Up to four out of every 10 individuals in the United States suffer from sleep paralysis, even though most are not officially diagnosed for several years.

• Sleep paralysis often starts during adolescence, prior to age 16.

• Although medically speaking, most individuals need not worry about any negative effects from this phenomena. However, most people report feeling scared or nervous, as they do not understand what is happening.

• Sleep paralysis upon awakening is much more common than sleep paralysis when drifting off to sleep.

• Sleep paralysis may run in families, although a specific gene for the disorder has not yet been isolated.

Risk Factors for Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is often idiopathic, which simply means that there is no specific underlying cause, but rather the condition has simply occurred at random. However, there are certain aspects that may elevate one’s risk for the development of ISP or RISP, which include the following:

• Long-term sleep deprivation
• Changes in one’s sleep schedule due to work or as a result of jet lag
• Bipolar disorder, stress, panic attacks, or other mental or emotional disorders
• Not changing position enough during sleep
• Other sleeping disorders such as restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy or insomnia
• Medications such as those used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder
• Genetic predisposition to the condition
• Substance abuse

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

The definition of sleep paralysis is also essentially its primary symptom, which is being entirely aware of one’s surroundings, yet temporarily not being able to talk or move.

For this reason, some experts state that it is not the sleep paralysis itself that is the true disorder, but rather the fact that one is aware of being temporarily paralyzed during sleep cycles.

Although not all patients experience the same symptoms, sleep paralysis may manifest in the following ways:

• A feeling of having one’s chest restricted or crushed
• Difficulty taking a deep breath
• Being unable to open or move the eyes
• Being unable to move one’s body
• An out of body sensation
• Mild paranoia
• Fear
• The sensation that something or someone is in the room

When Sleep Paralysis Becomes Worrisome

Sleep researchers have concluded that in the majority of cases, sleep paralysis is merely a sign that the person’s body is not moving in a linear fashion through the stages of sleep as is the case with those who are never aware of these episodes.

Therefore, it is wise for such individuals to pursue ways to eliminate or lessen these experiences and seek help to ensure better quality sleep.


Sleep paralysis is primarily a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that the doctor must rule out all other conditions before arriving at a diagnosis.

This is because there is no specific test for sleep paralysis. The main condition physicians rule out first is narcolepsy, due to the high incidence of this disorder that is seen in conjunction with sleep paralysis.

Diagnosing narcolepsy is not difficult, as there are many genetic tests available with which to pinpoint the disorder. Panic disorder, REM sleep phase abnormalities and environmental factors such as substance abuse are all typically ruled out as well.

After this is accomplished, the patient’s description of the episodes are compared with other, well documented experiences of sleep paralysis sufferers. If no other sleep disorder was uncovered and the descriptions match, it is usually determined that the patient’s symptoms are that of ISP or RISP.

How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, it may be possible to minimize the number of sleeping paralysis episodes one experiences by following what is referred to as “good sleep hygiene.”

Below are some tips that may help individuals have less disturbed sleep cycles, and therefore potentially less instances of sleep paralysis:

Avoid Daytime Naps

Avoiding daytime naps is a helpful tip, as this extra sleep often causes a delay in the release of the hormone melatonin, which signals the body to fall sleep at night.

Late afternoon is a period of time during which many people feel sluggish and attempt to nap. It is better to try a healthy protein snack, a short burst of aerobic exercise or even a leisurely walk in the fresh air to counteract “afternoon slump.” If a nap is absolutely necessary, it should be limited to 30 minutes.

Do Not Drink Alcohol 4-6 Hours Prior to Bedtime

Numerous individuals think alcohol helps them sleep. Even though this may be true in an immediate sense, it will result in frequent awakening during the night when the initial alcohol levels begin to plummet.

This is called a wake-up or stimulant effect, and it can severely interrupt sleep. For this reason, it is best to avoid alcohol for four to six hours before attempting to go to sleep.

Avoid Sugars and Spices in the Evening

It is also wise to avoid consuming sugary, spicy or rich foods within six hours of bedtime. Such foods can lead to temporary insomnia in many individuals.

Shun Caffeinated Drinks in the Afternoon as Well as the Evening

Beverages that contain caffeine should not be consumed within 10 hours of bedtime. Many people do not realize how long caffeine stays in their bloodstream, thinking that the 4 PM cup of coffee cannot affect them at midnight.

However, 50 percent of the caffeine consumed at 4 PM is still in a person’s bloodstream at midnight. Therefore, experts recommend not consuming caffeine for 8 to 10 hours before going to bed.

Regular Exercise May Reduce Sleep Paralysis Episodes

Studies are underway to determine if regular exercise may reduce episodes of sleep paralysis.

Because those suffering from narcolepsy and insomnia benefit from regular workouts, it is believed that those who suffer from sleep paralysis may also enjoy this advantage if they exercise.

However, it is important not to workout too close to bedtime, as this can have an adverse effect.

Sleep Paralysis Treatment: How to Stop Sleep Paralysis During an Episode

Do Not Panic and Fight Symptoms

Surprisingly, surrendering is one of the best things a person can do to shorten a sleep paralysis episode.

Because those who suffer from the disorder often feel as if they are being held down, they respond emotionally and panic. However, this may only worsen the episode or make it last longer.

Instead, one should make every effort to relax and silently repeat affirmations such as “I am okay, sleep paralysis is perfectly normal.” Visualizing going with the pressure as opposed to resisting it may also lessen its impact.

Calmly Attempting to Move an Extremity

Although it can be extremely difficult to talk or sit up during sleep paralysis, it may be possible to eventually make a small movement that can break the paralysis. For this reason, individuals with the

For this reason, individuals with the disorder should not attempt to leap out of bed or talk at the top of their lungs. Rather, effort should be focused on simply clenching a fist or wiggling a toe. According to Doctor Ravi Chand, an experienced psychiatrist, even blinking the eyelids several times can help end the sleep paralysis episode.

According to Doctor Ravi Chand, an experienced psychiatrist, even blinking the eyelids several times can help end the sleep paralysis episode.

Mindful Breathing to Help End a Sleep Paralysis Episode

During an episode of sleep paralysis, staying calm and waiting for it to break are essential actions. Therefore, trying to control breathing is wise.

Simply taking deep breaths in which the exhale is longer than the inhale can go a long way toward not only ending the episode, but also helping oneself to remain calm.

The Role of Gaba in Sleep Paralysis

Although it is known that during sleep paralysis muscles are essentially frozen, the reason for this has remained a mystery.

Initial scientific studies pinpointed a neurotransmitter called glycine as a possible source of the phenomenon, but this notion was disproved during a clinical trial: the presence of glycine was blocked from participants’ neurotransmitters, yet the paralysis still occurred.

Newer research conducted at the University of Toronto by scientists John Peever and Patricia Brooks, focused on several voluntary muscle nerve receptors, called ionotropic GABAA-glycine and metabotropic GABAB.

The researchers used medications to turn off both metabotropic GABAB and ionotropic GABAA-glycine receptors in rats and found that it was indeed necessary to turn off both types simultaneously in order to prevent sleep paralysis.

Therefore, it was discovered that both types of the natural substance, GABA, are necessary for sleep paralysis. Researchers are attempting to discover if an overproduction of both types of GABA may be a factor with regard to why certain people become aware of sleep paralysis and others do not.

Using High-Quality Supplements

Investing in a high-quality brain support or sleep support supplement is also a wise course of action for virtually anyone suffering from sleep paralysis. Supplements such as Zen Sleep can help normalize sleep patterns and the disorders by which they are caused.

Prescription sleep medications often make individuals feel intoxicated when falling asleep and groggy and hung over upon awakening. Unlike chemical alternatives, proper supplements such as Zen Sleep use all-natural ingredients that do not create the same negative side effects.

This ensures that one awakens refreshed, rather than sluggish. Fortunately, supplements of this type are also non-habit forming and in most cases significantly less expensive than prescription drugs.

Finally, those who suspect they may have a sleep disorder should schedule an appointment with a licensed healthcare practitioner for a proper diagnosis.


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