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Although estimates vary, as many as 65% of us are likely to experience sleep paralysis at least once during our lives. It affects men and women equally, and can occur at any age (although it’s more common in teenagers and young adults). Sleep paralysis can be terrifying: you can be totally aware of your surroundings, but you cannot move, speak, or even move your eyes. Many people describe having vivid hallucinations – they can feel a presence, and sometimes even hear or see it. Some explain it as a state of limbo between a dream and wakefulness.

Causes

There is no one reason why so many people experience sleep paralysis, and no one fully understands why it happens. That being said, experts have narrowed down the likely causes. One of the primary reasons is not getting enough quality sleep. Sleep deprivation can greatly affect your body’s mental and physical wellbeing, and its effects are numerous. It can be caused by stress, substances such as caffeine, and not having a comfortable mattress, amongst other reasons. Irregularity with sleeping patterns is another common cause of sleep paralysis – people who travel often and experience jet lag or people who work shifts are examples of those who may be more at risk. Other causes include things outside of our control, such as rolling onto our backs when sleeping, having a family history of sleep paralysis, or having narcolepsy.

Symptoms

Sleep paralysis is most likely to happen as you are waking up, and sometimes when you are falling asleep. It is characterised by being completely aware of your surroundings, but being unable to move or speak for a short period of time (usually from a few seconds to a few minutes). Sufferers of sleep paralysis report common symptoms as:

  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and/or feeling of crushing pressure on the chest
  • Inability to move eyes – including opening or closing eyes
  • A feeling of dread, panic, or fear
  • A feeling that there is a someone in the room (often a malicious presence)
  • Other vivid hallucinations
  • Anxiety about going back to sleep

Sufferers will understandably feel unsettled after an episode of sleep paralysis, but will return to normal afterwards.

Treatment

As the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and so it is with sleep paralysis. It is generally accepted that sleep paralysis gets better with time, whether that means becoming less intense or disappearing entirely. However, there are many things you can do to decrease the likelihood of having an episode. Most importantly is improving your sleeping environment and habits:

  • Try to ensure that you get about 8 hours of sleep each night
  • Try as far as possible to go to bed and wake up and the same time each day
  • Avoid substances such as caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine before bedtime
  • Exercise regularly (though only before 4 hours prior to bedtime)
  • Make sure your room is the right temperature – being too hot or too cold will disturb your sleep
  • Make sure you have a high quality, supportive mattress and pillows to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep

If you are very concerned about your sleep paralysis, or experience other symptoms associated with sleep disorders like narcolepsy, please see your GP for more advice.