Sleep Paralysis Explained
Sleep paralysis is a frightening experience. The sensation of being aware and conscious but unable to move is one you don’t forget. It’s not uncommon and in fact, can be experienced by anyone at any time.
Whether you have had an isolated episode or experience it regularly, understanding what’s happening can help you feel less scared. Night terrors, a related experience, can also be confusing and unsettling.
In this article, we’ll explain the science behind sleep paralysis and night terrors, what causes it, and how to cope.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
During sleep paralysis, your brain begins to awaken and becomes conscious, but you cannot move or speak. You are aware of what is happening but feel paralyzed. This is often accompanied by hallucinations.
Being unable to move while sleeping is perfectly natural. As you drift off to sleep, your brain signals your muscles to relax. This keeps you from moving too much when you go through the REM cycle of sleep, the stage in which your eyes move rapidly and you experience dreams. If your body could move more, you could hurt yourself or others while acting out dreams.
During sleep paralysis, your body is still in this relaxed state, but you have regained awareness. It usually occurs as you drift off, right after you fall asleep, as you’re waking up, or going into or out of REM sleep. During deep sleep, you don’t dream, so this type of paralysis usually only happens when transitioning between sleep cycles.
What Triggers Sleep Paralysis?
Anyone can experience occasional sleep paralysis, and it’s more common than people realize. Certain risk factors make it more likely you’ll have an episode:
Inadequate sleep or sleep deprivation
Our bodies are designed to need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and getting less than that can increase the chances of sleep paralysis. This is because sleep deprivation can lead to irregular sleeping patterns, which can disrupt our circadian rhythms and make us more vulnerable to these episodes.
An irregular sleep schedule, such as with shift workers
Consistency is key for healthy sleep. When our body clocks are disrupted, it can increase the likelihood of experiencing sleep paralysis. To function optimally, it’s important to stick to a consistent routine for going to bed and waking up.
Stress, anxiety, and depression
Have you noticed a correlation between times of high stress and episodes of sleep paralysis? Stress, anxiety, and depression can all lead to a higher risk of experiencing these episodes.
Substance use, especially stimulants like caffeine and nicotine
Caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants, which can make it harder to get restful sleep. This can lead to more periods of disturbed sleep, which can increase the risk of experiencing sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is also a symptom of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition. It affects your ability to maintain normal sleep-wake boundaries, causesexcessive daytime sleepiness, and causes frequent waking. Because people with narcolepsy frequently wake up during the night, they are more susceptible to sleep paralysis.
Certain medications, such as antipsychotics and antidepressants, can cause side effects that disrupt sleep. This can lead to a higher risk of sleep paralysis. When you think you may be experiencing side effects from any medication, it’s important to talk to your doctor and a sleep specialist who may be able to help you find an alternative medication that won’t interfere with your sleep.
What Is a Night Terror?
Now that we’ve talked about sleep paralysis let’s look at night terrors. Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, are a sleep disorder in which people wake up during the night and experience intense fear, confusion, and disorientation.
It’s important to note that night terrors are not the same as nightmares. The difference is that during a night or sleep terror, you are not necessarily aware of your surroundings or able to recall the experience afterward. While a nightmare will leave you feeling scared or anxious, a night terror will leave you feeling confused and disoriented.
Night terrors can occur in children, but they are more common in adults. The most common triggers for night terrors are stress, fatigue, and a disrupted sleep schedule. Night terrors typically happen during the first few hours of sleep and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
Signs of night terrors
If you or your child experience night terrors, there are a few signs to watch out for. These include:
• Sweating and flushing of the skin
• Rapid heart rate and breathing
• Moving around in bed or even out of bed
• Crying out, mumbling, or moaning
• Seeming unaware of their surroundings
• Difficulty waking up from the episode
These episodes usually end with the person returning to sleep, but they may leave them feeling disoriented and exhausted.
How are night terrors related to sleep paralysis?
Night terrors and sleep paralysis can both be caused by a number of factors, such as stress, fatigue, and an irregular sleep schedule. They can also both be symptoms of other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy.
Night terrors and sleep paralysis can also co-occur in some cases, which means they can happen at the same time or one after the other. This is why it’s important to be aware of both sleep paralysis and night terrors and to talk with your doctor if you think you may be experiencing either one.
Sleep Paralysis, Night Terrors, and Other Sleep Disorders
Sleep paralysis is also related to several other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome (RLS), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), REM sleep behavior disorder (RSBD), and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD).
- Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to regulate sleeping and waking cycles. People with narcolepsy often experience sudden episodes of sleep during the day.
- Restless legs syndrome is a condition that causes an uncomfortable sensation in the legs, which can make it difficult to fall asleep.
- Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that occurs when breathing is interrupted, resulting in pauses in breathing during sleep.
- REM sleep behavior disorder is a condition in which the brain does not enter the proper state of paralysis during REM sleep, resulting in people acting out their dreams.
- Periodic limb movement disorder is a condition characterized by involuntary jerking or twitching of the legs during sleep.
It’s important to understand that these disorders can all increase your risk of experiencing sleep paralysis, so it’s important to talk with your doctor if you think you may be suffering from any of them.
Coping With Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors As They Happen
Waking up in the middle of the night, feeling paralyzed, and experiencing fear can be a frightening experience. It’s important to remember that sleep paralysis is not dangerous, and the episode will pass.
Below is a step-by-step guide to help you cope with episodes of sleep paralysis:
- Upon waking in a state of paralysis, take several deep breaths.
- Remind yourself that the episode will soon pass, and you will be able to move freely again.
- Try to move small parts of your body, such as your fingers or toes, to help bring awareness back into the body.
- If possible, get up and walk around the room to help shake off the feeling of paralysis.
- Once the episode has passed, write down any thoughts or emotions that you experienced and practice relaxation techniques to help reduce stress.
If episodes are frequent and disruptive to your life, it’s important to speak with your doctor. They can help diagnose any underlying sleep disorders and recommend treatments to help you cope with episodes.
Dealing with Others’ Night Terrors
Night terrors are not usually remembered by the person having them, so it can be difficult to know how to react in the moment. Here are some tips for helping a loved one who is experiencing night terrors:
- Stay calm and speak softly to your loved one as they are coming out of the episode.
- Do not try to wake them up.
- Offer comfort and reassurance, such as a hug or holding their hand.
- Gently guide them back to bed and encourage them to go back to sleep.
- Talk with your loved one the next day or call their doctor if the episodes occur frequently.
Night terrors, sleep paralysis, and other sleep disorders can all be effectively managed with proper treatment. Below, we discuss some of the most common treatments for night terrors and sleep paralysis.
How to Avoid Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors
If you are otherwise healthy and don’t have a sleep disorder, the best thing you can do to prevent sleep paralysis episodes and night terrors is improve your sleep hygiene. The more well-rested you are and the more regular and healthy your sleep routine is, the less likely you will experience sleep paralysis.
Maintain a regular bedtime and waking time, even on the weekends.
Your sleep schedule should be sacred. Avoid napping for long hours during the day, as it can disrupt your regular sleep pattern.
Create a more comfortable sleep environment that is dark and quiet with limited distractions.
A good bedroom environment helps promote good sleep. Some tips for creating a comfortable sleep environment are keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom, using blackout curtains, or using background noise if needed.
Avoid alcohol before bed.
Many individuals love to drink before going to bed, but it is not always the best idea. Alcohol has a sedative effect that can disrupt normal REM sleep and make you more prone to sleep paralysis.
Try not to stress too much before bed.
Stress can keep the mind and body from entering into a relaxed state, making it harder to fall asleep. Try stress management activities like mindfulness or journaling before bedtime. You can also run a warm bath, listen to soothing music, or do some meditation.
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and at bedtime.
A good cup of coffee can give you a boost throughout the day, but too much caffeine in the evening can make falling asleep harder. Try avoiding caffeine at least 4-6 hours before bedtime.
Exercise regularly during the day.
Regular exercise can help release natural endorphins and improve your quality of sleep. A 20-30 minute workout session 3-4 times a week can help promote better sleep and make you less prone to episodes of sleep paralysis.
Making these lifestyle changes and following good sleep hygiene will help reduce your chances of experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis. However, if you still experience episodes, it’s best to speak with your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Meditation for Sleep Paralysis or Night Terrors
Meditation can be a great way to help manage episodes of sleep paralysis or night terrors. It helps reduce stress and promote relaxation, which can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Try meditating for 10-15 minutes before bed, focusing on your breath and allowing your mind to wander as thoughts pass through. This can help ease the transition into sleep and reduce the likelihood of experiencing an episode.
Below, we outline a few meditation techniques to help reduce the likelihood of experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis or night terrors:
Focus on your breathing.
Our breath is a powerful tool for relaxation. Focus on the air entering and leaving your body, emptying your mind of other thoughts.
Choose a mantra to repeat in your head.
A mantra is a word or phrase that can help you clear your mind and stay focused. Examples include “I am relaxed,” “I am calming down,” or even just counting in your head.
Picture yourself in a relaxing environment, like the beach or a forest.
Visualization is a powerful technique for relaxation and calming the mind. Imagine yourself in a peaceful place, free from anxiety or fear.
Focus on the sensation of your body.
Feel the pressure of your fingertips against each other or imagine what it feels like when one foot touches the other. This helps to ground you in the present moment and reduce racing thoughts.
Practice yoga poses before bedtime.
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress and provide relaxation. Try a few simple poses before bedtime, focusing on your breath and body sensations.
BetterSleep: Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
The best way to reduce episodes of sleep paralysis is to improve your overall sleep hygiene. This includes following healthy habits that can help you get better quality sleep and reduce the risk of experiencing episodes.
Try the BetterSleep app to find relaxing meditations, exercises, and bedtime stories to prepare your mind for more restful sleep. Our app also has personalized sleep advice tailored to your needs so that you can get the most out of every night’s rest.
When to See a Doctor
If you take steps to improve your sleep and still experience disturbing and disruptive episodes of sleep paralysis, talk to your doctor. They may be able to diagnose a sleep disorder underlying the episodes. They may also be able to identify a medication you take or an undiagnosed mental health condition that triggers sleep paralysis.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: How do I know if I’m having a night terror or sleep paralysis?
A: Night terrors and sleep paralysis are both similar in that they can cause episodes of fear and terror in the middle of the night. Generally, night terrors will involve more intense physical activity (such as thrashing around) and may include screaming. Sleep paralysis, on the other hand, is usually just a feeling of being unable to move or “paralyzed” in bed.
Q: Can sleep paralysis be dangerous?
A: Sleep paralysis is not physically harmful. However, it can cause great distress in those who experience it. If it is causing you distress, talk to your doctor about how to manage the episodes.
Q: What are some treatment options for night terrors and sleep paralysis?
A: Treatment for night terrors and sleep paralysis can vary depending on the underlying cause. If you are diagnosed with a sleep disorder, your doctor may recommend sleep medicine or lifestyle changes to help you manage the condition. Additionally, there are relaxation techniques and mindfulness practices that can help reduce the occurrence of night terrors and sleep paralysis.
Q: What are the long-term effects of night terrors and sleep paralysis?
A: The long-term effects of night terrors and sleep paralysis can vary depending on the underlying cause and how frequently they occur. Generally, night terrors and sleep paralysis can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety during nighttime hours, which can lead to difficulty sleeping. In some cases, they can also cause daytime sleepiness or fatigue.
Q: My partner also experiences episodes of sleep paralysis, is this normal?
A: Yes, it is possible for more than one person in the same household to experience episodes of sleep paralysis. If your partner is also experiencing episodes, it is important to talk to your doctor about the best way to manage it. Additionally, it is important to practice good sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques to reduce the episodes.
Q: I don’t have time for yoga before bed; what other relaxation techniques can I try?
A: If yoga isn’t an option for you before bed, there are other relaxation techniques you can try. Progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, guided meditations, and even simple stretches can help prepare the body for sleep. Additionally, you can listen to soothing music on the BetterSleep app and read a bedtime story to help relax your mind and body.
Q: My kid is having sleep paralysis; what should I do?
A: If your child is experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis, it is important to first talk to their doctor to try and identify any underlying cause. Additionally, creating a calming bedtime routine for your child can help reduce the frequency of episodes. Read our tips in the above article to learn more about how to create a sleep-friendly bedroom environment for your child.
Q: Is there a way to stop sleep paralysis from happening?
A: Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to “cure” sleep paralysis. However, there are a few steps you can take to reduce the frequency of episodes, such as the steps outlined above.
Q: Can I drink any beverages to help with sleep paralysis?
A: While certain beverages may relax the body and help you feel more comfortable when trying to fall asleep, there is no scientific evidence that drinking any particular beverage can help with sleep paralysis. The best way to reduce episodes of sleep paralysis is to practice good sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques.
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