Although sleep paralysis can result in high levels of anxiety, it isn’t generally considered life-threatening.
While more research is needed on the long-term effects, episodes usually only last between a few seconds and a few minutes.
An episode of sleep paralysis occurs when you’re just falling asleep or just waking. You feel paralyzed and are unable to speak or move. It can last a few seconds or a few minutes, and feel quite disturbing.
While experiencing sleep paralysis, you might hallucinate vivid waking dreams, which can lead to feelings of intense fear and high levels of anxiety.
When this occurs while you’re waking up it’s termed hypnopompic sleep paralysis. When it occurs while you’re falling asleep it’s known as hypnagogic sleep paralysis.
If you have episodes of sleep paralysis independent of other conditions, it’s called isolated sleep paralysis (ISP). If ISP episodes occur with frequency and cause pronounced distress, it’s called recurrent isolated sleep paralysis (RISP).
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This has limited our current knowledge on sleep paralysis in regards to:
- risk factors
- long-term damage
There’s currently a larger amount of cultural information available than clinical research, for example:
- In Cambodia, many believe that sleep paralysis is a spiritual attack.
- In Italy, a popular folk remedy is to sleep face down with a pile of sand on the bed and a broom by the door.
- In China many people believe that sleep paralysis should be handled with the help of a spiritualist.
From a medical perspective, a 2018 review in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews identified a large number of variables associated with sleep paralysis, including:
- genetic influences
- physical illness
- sleep problems and disorders, both subjective sleep quality and objective sleep disruption
- stress and trauma, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder
- substance use
- symptoms of psychiatric illness, mainly anxiety symptoms
Hypnopompic sleep paralysis might be related to the transition from REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep occurs at the beginning of the normal process of falling asleep. During NREM, your brain waves slow.
After about 90 minutes of NREM sleep, your brain activity changes and REM sleep begins. While your eyes are moving quickly and you’re dreaming, your body remains completely relaxed.
If you become aware prior to the end of the REM cycle, there could be awareness of an inability to speak or move.
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes severe daytime drowsiness and unexpected attacks of sleep. Most people with narcolepsy can have trouble staying awake for extended periods of time, regardless of their situation or the circumstances.
One symptom of narcolepsy can be sleep paralysis, however not everyone who experiences sleep paralysis has narcolepsy.
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While there’s no cure from this chronic condition, many symptoms can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication.
Even though waking up with an inability to move or speak can be incredibly upsetting, sleep paralysis usually doesn’t continue for a very long time and isn’t life-threatening.
If you find yourself experiencing sleep paralysis on more than a periodic basis, visit your doctor to see if you might have an underlying condition.
Tell them if you’ve ever had any other sleep disorder and let them know about any medications and supplements you’re currently taking.