While falling asleep or waking up, your brain helps the muscles in your arms and legs relax. With sleep paralysis, you regain awareness but can’t move. Paralysis is temporary and isn't a sign of a major medical issue. Pinpointing the source of your symptoms and addressing them can help you avoid future episodes.
While falling asleep or waking up, your brain sends signals that relax muscles in your arms and legs. The result — muscle atonia — helps you remain still during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. With sleep paralysis, you regain awareness but can’t move.
During a sleep paralysis episode, you're aware of your surroundings but cannot move or speak. But you can still move your eyes and breathe. Many people hear or see things that aren’t there (hallucinations), making episodes even more frightening.
They last anywhere between a few seconds and a few minutes.
Rare or isolated sleep paralysis can occur in people of all ages. And it’s more common in the setting of sleep deprivation in association with a changing sleep schedule, which may happen if you are a college student or do shift work. Recurrent sleep paralysis is a symptom of narcolepsy, a disorder of unstable sleep-wake boundaries.
During the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage, you’re likely to have dreams. The brain prevents muscles in your limbs from moving to protect yourself from acting dreams out and hurting yourself. Sleep paralysis happens when you regain awareness going into or coming out of REM. Because narcolepsy is characterized by unstable wakefulness and unstable sleep, people with narcolepsy have frequent night awakenings that can be associated with sleep paralysis.
The condition has many causes, including:
The symptoms include:
Even one sleep paralysis episode can leave you feeling anxious about going to sleep. If it bothers you, discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider. You should also consider seeking care if you feel excessively sleepy during the day.
Healthcare providers confirm or rule out sleep paralysis after an evaluation. They may ask you about:
Your healthcare provider may recommend testing if they suspect a sleep disorder. You may need:
There are no proven therapies that can stop a sleep paralysis episode, but most people who experience it routinely report that focusing on making small body movements (such as moving one finger, then another) helps them to recover more quickly. Your healthcare provider can recommend treatments that lower the risk of future episodes.
It may also help to consolidate your sleep, try to prevent sleep deprivation and avoid the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.
There isn't much you can do to prevent sleep paralysis from happening. But there are steps you can take to lower your risk.
One of the best ways to avoid sleep paralysis is to improve the quality of your sleep. You can do this by:
You may experience only one episode in your lifetime. But it may also come and go. You're more likely to have an episode during periods of high stress when you’re experiencing sleep deprivation. If you have sleep deprivation that goes away and comes back, you should discuss it with your healthcare provider.
It’s natural to feel tired, emotional and scared after recovering from sleep paralysis, and with good reason. Sleep paralysis is a frightening experience. Be kind to yourself, including getting extra rest if you need it. Talk to a loved one for comfort or see your healthcare provider if you have concerns.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sleep paralysis is uncommon. But many people feel scared after an episode. The experience may have felt so strange that you may wonder whether anyone will believe what happened.
Don’t let these feelings hold you back from getting medical attention and the support you need. A healthcare provider can pinpoint the causes, provide treatments or offer self-care recommendations to lower your risk of future episodes.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/18/2021.
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