What’s it like to wake up and not be able to move? Find out more about sleep paralysis – what it is and what causes it.
What could be more terrifying than to wake up from sleep and be unable to move? This condition, appropriately called sleep paralysis, can be immensely frightening and cause intense fear and panic. To make matters worse, people with sleep paralysis can have vivid hallucinations. Not a good way to wake up, to say the least. What is sleep paralysis and what causes it?
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a brief period where a person is conscious but unable to move any part of their body. They lie in bed and will their body to move, but they can’t get their limbs to budge. Sleep paralysis usually occurs when a person is falling asleep or when they’re just emerging from a deep sleep. Fortunately, these episodes only last a moment or two before movement returns.
What Causes Sleep Paralysis?
Some people who experience sleep paralysis have narcolepsy, a condition characterized by “sleep attacks” where a person suddenly falls asleep while carrying out their normal activities. These attacks may occur numerous times during the day even when they’re driving or engaged in activities that require alertness and attention. Sleep paralysis happens to normal people too.
According to one study almost one out of four people have had an episode of sleep paralysis during their lifetime. Usually it happens only a few times, and it’s rarely a nightly occurrence, but it can occur more frequently – even in normal, healthy people.
No one knows why sleep paralysis is a problem for some but not others. Paralysis during REM sleep, the period where rapid eye movements and dreams occur, is common. If you wake up suddenly during REM sleep, it might take a few seconds for your body to “catch up” and tell your muscles to move. People who frequently experience sleep paralysis may have more difficulty transitioning between sleep stages. There’s some evidence that stress, alcohol consumption and too little sleep plays a role.
If you have frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, see a doctor to rule out narcolepsy. The bottom line? Sleep paralysis is unpleasant and sometimes downright scary, but it isn’t life-threatening.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.
Irish Psychologist, 36, 95-98