Understanding Sleep Paralysis: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Nov 16, 2023 | Health Matters, Sleep, Stress Management

Imagine waking up but finding yourself unable to move or speak. This intriguing yet (often) anxiety-inducing experience is known as sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that occurs in the space between sleep and wakefulness. What causes it, and more importantly, how can you manage it? Together we can transform your sleep—and health!

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a unique and often startling experience that occurs when you’re transitioning between stages of wakefulness and sleep. While not everyone will experience sleep paralysis, it is a common phenomenon. In order to understand it fully, you will need to know the basics of our typical sleep cycle: 

NREM Stage 1

This is the initial stage of sleep, often lasting just a few minutes. It’s a light sleep phase where you can be easily awakened. Your body begins to relax, and brain wave activity starts to slow down from its wakeful state.

NREM Stage 2

This stage marks the onset of deeper sleep. Your heart rate and breathing stabilize, body temperature drops, and brain waves continue to slow, with occasional bursts of rapid activity known as sleep spindles.

NREM Stage 3

Often referred to as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep, this stage is essential for feeling refreshed in the morning. During this phase, brain waves slow to their lowest levels, making it more difficult to wake you up. It’s a restorative sleep stage where the body repairs tissues, removes toxins, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep

Typically occurring about 90 minutes after falling asleep, this phase is characterized by rapid eye movement, increased brain activity, and vivid dreams. During REM sleep, your body becomes temporarily paralyzed, preventing you from acting out your dreams.

Sleep paralysis happens when this protective mechanism during REM sleep persists even as you wake up or fall asleep. You find yourself conscious but unable to move or speak for a short period, typically a few seconds to a few minutes. This experience can be highly unsettling for most people. While it can have a lingering effect, it is harmless and doesn’t indicate a deeper medical issue.

By understanding what sleep paralysis is and holding space for how disconcerting this experience can be, you can navigate these moments with greater ease and take control of your sleep. 


The Common Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

Each episode of sleep paralysis can present differently, even to the same person. These, however, are common symptoms and experiences tied to the unique state between sleep and wakefulness. Recognizing and becoming familiar with these symptoms not only helps in identifying sleep paralysis in the moment but also in reducing any anxiety associated with its occurrence.

Inability to Move or Speak

This symptom is widely considered the defining feature of sleep paralysis. During these moments, your brain is alert (and your eyes are often open) and aware of your surroundings, but it’s unable to send the usual signals to your muscles to initiate movement or use of your voice. 

This discrepancy creates a unique sensation — you’re fully conscious, but your body remains in a sound asleep state. This experience can be disorienting and can make you feel trapped within your own body.

Pressure on Chest

The sensation of pressure on the chest during sleep paralysis is distinct from other symptoms. It can feel like an unseen force or weight pressing down, creating a sense of tightness or constriction. This experience is a physiological phenomenon, often linked to the body’s response to a perceived threat. In a state of sleep paralysis, the brain’s instinctive reaction can be a surge of stress-related hormones, like adrenaline, increase heart rate and create a sensation of pressure or tightness in the chest area. This response is similar to what you might feel during moments of intense fear or anxiety. However, it’s important to note that this uncomfortable sensation is not dangerous and doesn’t reflect any physical harm to your body. It’s a temporary reaction that subsides as the episode of sleep paralysis ends.

Sensation of Presence or Intruder

The feeling of someone else being in the room during sleep paralysis can be a bone-chilling symptom. There are active dream remnants that initiate the brain’s threat detection system. This misinterpretation manifests as a sensation of an unseen presence. It’s a primal response rooted in the brain’s evolutionary function to protect us from harm, even when there’s no actual danger present. This sensation is intensified due to the inability to move, which amplifies feelings of vulnerability and heightens the perceived presence. You can have this as a sensory experience or even “see” a shadow in the corner of the room or hovering near your bed. 


The hallucinations experienced during sleep paralysis can be a terrifying and confusing aspect of the condition, distinct from other symptoms. They can manifest in various forms – visual, auditory, or tactile – and are more than just a spillover of REM sleep activity into wakefulness. The brain, caught between dreaming and wakefulness, may interpret incomplete or distorted sensory input, creating vivid and hyper-realistic hallucinations. For instance, visual hallucinations might include seeing indistinct shapes or figures, auditory hallucinations could involve hearing unexplained noises or voices, and tactile hallucinations might feel like being touched or grabbed. These experiences are influenced by the brain’s attempt to make sense of its unusual state, blending elements of dreams with the reality of the surrounding environment. 


Causes of Sleep Paralysis

Because Sleep paralysis is such a vivid and startling feeling, it’s not uncommon to wonder why it is happening to you and how to avoid it. The causes are multifaceted, involving lifestyle factors and your well-being. 

At its core, sleep paralysis occurs when there’s a disconnect between the brain’s activity and the body’s muscle control during the sleep-wake transition. One significant cause is sleep deprivation (like insomnia) or an irregular sleep schedule. Sleep paralysis isn’t the only unsettling issue that can happen from poor sleep, and if this sounds like you, it is time to take control! Check out my blog here for more information on the impact sleep has on your health.

Stress and mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, also play a role in sleep paralysis due to the effects they intrinsically have on sleep patterns. 

Your sleep position matters, too. Sleeping on your back has been linked to a higher occurrence of sleep paralysis. This position influences the way your body relaxes and moves into different sleep stages.

Lastly, certain substances like caffeine or alcohol, or even some medications, can impact your sleep cycle. Their effects on the brain and body can inadvertently contribute to the occurrence of sleep paralysis.

Want to work together to address the root causes of your sleep challenges? Then let’s chat! You’re only a few clicks away from officially setting up a FREE Health Discover Call with me.

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Remedies for Better Sleep

If you’re on the hunt for remedies to get your sleep in check, you’re in luck! Achieving restful sleep is within your reach! If sleep paralysis or other sleep disturbances have been a concern, know that We’re here to support you in taking back control of your health and getting the rest you need to live the life you love! 


To begin remedying your health, one sleep at a time, don’t miss this life-changing opportunity: 5 Basic Steps in Sleep Training to Get a Better Night’s Sleep

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