The Science of Sleep Paralysis

By: Mansi Arora

Did you know that a person can suffer from a brief paralysis when passing between stages of wakefulness and sleep, known as sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can last up to a few seconds to 20 minutes. The average time is 5-8 minutes. These episodes can terminate with certain external factors such as a person's touch, voice, or a powerful attempt by the concerned person to move their muscles.

In the medical literature, there are two types of sleep paralysis. It includes isolated sleep paralysis and recurrent sleep paralysis.

Isolated Sleep Paralysis is when episodes are not associated with an underlying diagnosis of narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder that causes overwhelming daytime drowsiness.

Recurrent Sleep Paralysis is the opposite of isolated sleep paralysis. It is when there are multiple episodes over some time.

Sleep paralysis is self-diagnosable and a few tell-tale symptoms include the inability to move the body when falling asleep or waking up. This can last from seconds to minutes, with the inability to speak for the duration of an episode. Hallucinations, certain pressure on the chest, difficulty breathing, an excessive amount of sweating, headaches, muscle pains and paranoia can also occur.

The hallucinations experienced can be broken down into three categories; intruder hallucinations, chest pressure hallucinations, and vestibular-motor (V-M) hallucinations.

Intruder hallucinations are when the individual has an insight of a dangerous person or a presence in a room. Chest pressure hallucinations (which are also called incubus hallucinations) give a sense of suffocation and sometimes occur with intruder hallucinations. Vestibular-motor (V-M) hallucinations can include feelings of movement (such as flying) or out-of-body sensations.

The deep-rooted cause of sleep paralysis is still unknown but many different and more superficial factors can contribute to sleep paralysis.

Sleep disorders are the most common basis of sleep paralysis. For example, it is reported as a symptom by people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder when there is a repeated time-lapse of breathing and is common in people with night leg cramping.

Another example of a sleep disorder that causes sleep paralysis is insomnia, which is when an individual has a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep or wakes up too early and is not able to go back to sleep. It can occur in people with jet lag, shift workers, people suffering from stress, etc. It may even run in the family.

Although there is still no ultimate cure for sleep paralysis, there are a few methods that an individual can use as treatment.

One of the main methods is keeping a healthy, comfortable sleeping environment, free from distractions and disturbances.

Another well-known method is consuming antidepressants upon prescription, which helps to regulate sleep cycles.

One can also keep a sleep diary to keep note of symptoms and their frequency.


1. Is sleep paralysis dangerous?

Sleep paralysis can be very frightening for an individual who experiences it, but it is not life-threatening. However it may result in high levels of anxiety.

2. Can Sleep Paralysis occur with any individual?

It is a highly common phenomenon, and most people will experience it at least once in their lifetime. Sleep paralysis can occur at any age. However individuals with irregular sleep patterns are more susceptible to sleep paralysis.


Image Credit:

Fairy Tale Night Music - Free image on Pixabay

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