What is Sleep Paralysis?

blond woman drifting between sleep cycles

Sleep paralysis, have you heard of it? It’s a fairly common occurrence, and can happen to anyone at any time. Basically, it’s a sign that your body isn’t transitioning smoothly between sleeping and waking. It’s almost as if you get stuck in between.

But that’s just our amateur explanation … let’s look closer at what the experts have to say about sleep paralysis.

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

According to WebMD, “Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move.” It happens while you’re transitioning between various stages of being asleep and awake. 

“During those transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking.”


That explains why, for centuries, people have reported these “episodes” as being something paranormal or even extraterrestrial. It can be quite a terrifying experience.

But as with any unknown experience, the more you learn about it, the less scary it becomes. So let’s talk about the finer details of sleep paralysis.

Who Gets Sleep Paralysis?

Would you believe that up to 40% of people experience sleep paralysis? Maybe you’re one of them. 

It can happen to any gender, at any age, but is most commonly noticed for the first time among teens. Conditions, such as bipolar disorder and narcolepsy, are sometimes linked to sleep paralysis.

It can also happen to people with substance abuse issues, or who take certain stimulant drugs, like those used to treat ADHD.

When Does Sleep Paralysis Occur?

There are two types of sleep paralysis, which occur at different times:

  • Predormital (or hypnagogic) sleep paralysis happens when you begin to fall asleep
  • Postdormital (or hypnopompic) sleep paralysis happens when you’re waking up

The former (hypnagogic) is simpler. Have you ever tried to remember falling asleep? You can’t do it, right?

That’s because the transition between being awake and being asleep is slow and subtle. As you become less aware and drift off, you may have a moment of mental alertness, but you can’t move or speak. 

The latter (hypnopompic) is a bit more complex.

When you’re sleeping, your body goes through various sleep cycles. One sleep cycle contains two phases: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). 

That cycle usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Most of those 90 minutes are spent in deep NREM sleep. It’s the time when your body repairs itself. For a brief time during those 90 minutes, you’ll enter into REM sleep, which is when you dream. 

During the dream phase, your body is paralyzed. That’s so you don’t physically act out your dreams in real life.

When you become mentally aware before you finish the dream phase of your sleep cycle (REM), you might feel like you can’t move. And that’s sleep paralysis.

Woman meditates overlooking busy cityscape to relieve sleep paralysis

How to Overcome Sleep Paralysis

First thing’s first. Get a proper diagnosis. If you feel paralyzed just as you’re falling asleep or waking up, or if you wake up feeling tired and/or anxious, talk to your doctor about the possibility you’re experiencing sleep paralysis. 

Unfortunately, there is no one particular treatment for sleep paralysis. Often, it goes away on its own. But there are some things you can do to help:

  • Rule out and/or treat any mental health issues or sleep disorders that may be causing your sleep paralysis
  • Try to minimize stress and make sure you’re getting enough sleep every night
  • If sleep paralysis is causing you anxiety, speak to a therapist about ways to calm your body and mind before bed

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Sleep tight!

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