Learn more about sleep paralysis

In the wee hours of the morning, you suddenly wake, overcome by a strange feeling of dread. You’re sure there’s an intruder in your room, then you spot a terrifying creature at the end of your bed. Yet you can’t move a muscle — or even scream.

It might sound like something out of a horror flick, but this experience, known as sleep paralysis, is a very real phenomenon. While harmless, this problem can be frightening, and the fear of having an episode may interfere with a good night’s sleep.

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It is a type of parasomnia or sleep disorder  that typically occurs when you are either falling asleep (hypnagogic) or when you are waking up (hypnopompic). During both of those periods, your eyes move quickly as part of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and dreams occur, but your muscles are very relaxed.

If you wake up before this stage ends, you might realize that you are unable to move or speak.

Sleep paralysis hallucinations

A subset of people also experience hallucinations. These can include:

  • A feeling of foreboding.
  • The sense that someone is in your room.
  • The sensation of something pressing on your chest or choking you.
  • An image of a monster, witch, demon, or other menacing figure.

Although it’s still unclear why or how these hallucinations occur, researchers believe a harmless neurological disturbance could be involved. An episode of sleep paralysis can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

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What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is quite common. Surveys found that about 40% of people have experienced it at some point in their lives. In fact, nearly every culture has some sort of story or explanation for the experience, ranging from vengeful spirits to alien abductors. Folklore aside, a number of factors can increase your likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis.

Why does sleep paralysis happen?

One of the major causes of sleep paralysis is sleep deprivation, or a lack of sleep. A change in your sleep schedule, stress, and other sleep-related problems might also play a role. Other factors could be involved, including:

  • Mental health conditions, such as PTSD or bipolar disorder.
  • Other sleep problems, such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps.
  • Use of certain medications, such as those for ADHD.

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

Symptoms may vary but commonly include:

  • Sleep paralysis hallucinations.
  • Sleep paralysis nightmares.
  • A sense of fear.
  • A feeling of weightlessness or floating.
  • The inability to move.
  • Chest pressure.
  • An “out of body” feeling.

How to Stop Sleep Paralysis

It’s normal to experience occasional episodes of sleep paralysis, and no treatment is necessary. If you have another sleep disorder, treating that problem will usually help prevent sleep paralysis as well.

The most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of having an episode is to get plenty of sleep — at least eight hours per night. You should also try to keep a lid on stress and switch to a side-sleeping position if you typically sleep on your back. If you are troubled by frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, talk to your health care provider, who may recommend that you see a sleep specialist for further evaluation.

How to prevent sleep paralysis

Experts say the best ways to prevent sleep paralysis are to:

  • Get 8 hours of sleep regularly. 

  • Reduce consumption of caffeine. 

  • Limit or stop consumption of alcohol. 

  • Exercise regularly. 

  • Follow a relaxing bedtime routine. 

Is sleep paralysis dangerous?

While sleep paralysis can be upsetting, it is not dangerous. Sleep paralysis can occur due to many factors, but its effects are not long-lasting or always recurring. Approximately 10% of people, however, have more recurring or bothersome episodes that make sleep paralysis especially distressing. Talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.

How to Wake Up From Sleep Paralysis

There is no proven way to safely wake yourself from sleep paralysis. The best advice is to remain calm and focus on your breathing until the episode ends. You may have a better chance of falling back to sleep than waking yourself, but remaining calm will help either way.

About the Sleep Center

Having trouble sleeping? What keeps you up at night? Learn more about sleep disorders and speak with an expert to get to the root of your sleeping problems. Visit the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center online and make an appointment today.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Sleep Medicine

Millions of Americans struggle with disorders that prevent them from getting a good night’s sleep. Better sleep can lead to better overall health, and the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center is here to help. We diagnose and treat numerous sleep conditions or disorders. We also provide help to people suffering from lack of sleep because of other health problems. We recognize a lack of sleep can cause problems during other times of the day, including alertness, memory, and health immunity. We hold sleep studies and lead clinical trials, all in the name of helping you sleep. Find a provider near you.