Sleep paralysis: what are the symptoms and causes?

September 29, 2020 3 mins read
Sleep paralysis: what are the symptoms and causes?

Fact: sleep paralysis causes are synonymous with anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation.

But, let’s rewind a bit.

Have you ever encountered a sensation in your sleep that could be described as an out-of-body experience? Does this feeling of being paralysed-yet-awake fill you with anxiety even well after it’s happened?

If so, you could be experiencing sleep paralysis at night.

Now, let’s take a deep breath. Sleep paralysis is not life-threatening nor a chronic sleep disorder (phew!). It will typically happen only once or twice in your lifetime, and while it’s terrifying in the moment (oh, we know!), it can be treated quite effectively.

Let’s explore.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is simply a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of sleep. Why? If you’re stressed or anxious, your mind is unable to calmly settle into quality sleep. The effect: your mind “wakes up” mid-stage, but your body is still hanging out in dreamland.

If you think about it this way, half of you is still in a dream state, and half of you is back in reality. The blurred lines between these two “worlds” essentially call upon your subconscious mind, which (if filled with stress and anxiety) can lead to disturbing and uncomfortable emotional experiences.

Typical sleep paralysis causes are:

  • Anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Disrupted sleep due to shift work or jet lag
  • Narcolepsy
  • A family history of sleep paralysis

What are the symptoms?

It’s good to remember that, however hauntingly real it may feel, it is not physically harmful (and only lasts for 1-2 minutes). Although it can create mental and muscular discomfort, it’s good to repeat the mantra of “this too shall pass.”

There are many types of sleep paralysis episodes that you could experience as you’re transitioning between wake and sleep states, like visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations. Below are some of the symptoms you could encounter.

  • Inability to move your body when falling asleep or when you wake
  • Knowing you’re consciously awake
  • Inability to communicate during the episode
  • Developing hallucinations and sensations that cause fear
  • A feeling of pressure on your chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A sense of dread and paranoia (often associated with death)
  • Increase in your body temperature causing sweats
  • Tensed muscles
  • Everyday insignificant sounds become louder

What triggers it?

Just like most sleep disorders and disturbances, stress and anxiety (often brought on by trauma) are your “lookout!” triggers.

Stress can rear its anxiety-driven head in the middle of our sweet dreams. Sleep scientists believe that when anxious or stressful thoughts disrupt our rapid eye movement sleep (REM or dream sleep), it triggers sleep paralysis.

Other causes could be poor sleep hygiene routines, bad habits that prevent quality sleep, and disrupted sleep routines from shift work or jet lag, which can throw your natural body clock off-kilter.

Treatment for sleep paralysis

It’s all about self-care. Not only can looking after yourself improve your daily sleeping habits, but it can also fend off the dream demons of sleep paralysis.

  • Avoid sleeping on your back; this is known to trigger sleep paralysis.
  • Keep a consistent sleep-wake cycle for optimal sleep.
  • Eliminate technology distractions before bed as the blue light can keep your mind active.
  • Avoid caffeine before bedtime (or go decaf) as stimulants can prolong falling asleep.
  • Try cognitive sleep therapy to reframe your negative thoughts.

How does it feel to be in sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience. You’ll feel as if you’re awake from sleep but remain immobilised, unable to move your body or turn your head. Speaking out or breathing will be a struggle, and you may feel a wave of fear sweep over you.

Try not to panic.

We’re here to remind you that, however frightening and disconcerting this experience may be, it is temporary and completely harmless.

Here’s to sweeter dreams that stay tucked away in our sleep.