Sleep Paralysis: Everything You Need to Know

Dr. Patrick Carroll, MD
Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 9/19/2019

Imagine this: you’re lying in bed and about to fall asleep, when suddenly you can’t move your body and you try to yell out for help or scream, but nothing comes out. You might see an ambiguous dark cloud or spirit hovering above you.

Every generation has its own culprit. Throughout history, people have blamed this phenomenon on demons, aliens and supernatural spirits. However, the reality is a less mystical and pretty anticlimactic: you’re experiencing a medical condition called sleep paralysis.  What causes it and how can it be avoided? 

Sleep Paralysis Causes

Sleep paralysis happens when something goes wrong in your REM cycle. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep occurs within the first couple of hours of drifting off. Since most dreams occur within REM sleep, the body has mechanisms to prevent accidents from occurring. 

During this sleep stage, your body is temporarily paralyzed so you don’t run around the room and injure yourself while dreaming. Sleep paralysis occurs when you have drifted off into REM sleep but for some reason, your mind remains awake. This ambiguous state can cause you to hallucinate and envision that there’s something crushing your body. 

Before you start calling the ghostbusters, you should understand that this is just your mind playing tricks on you and it will most likely be over within a couple minutes. Why does this happen?

There are numerous reasons why you may have experienced sleep paralysis. Here are a few:

  • Sleep deprivation: When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more susceptible to disruptions in your sleep. In addition, experiencing jet lag, anxiety and stress can make your sleep quality worse and subsequently make you susceptible to sleep paralysis.
  • Sleeping on your back: The majority of people who experience sleep paralysis say it happened when they were asleep on their back
  • Napping: One expert claims that napping can make you more susceptible to sleep paralysis. 
  • Narcolepsy: Sleep paralysis is a symptom of narcolepsy — a disorder in which people perpetually drift off into sleep during the day. 
  • Sleep apnea: Sleep paralysis has been linked to sleep apnea cases. Sleep apnea is when you have difficulty breathing during sleep.

Since some of these conditions are potentially fairly serious, it is a good idea to contact a physician if you experience frequent sleep paralysis. Until then, however...

Preventing Sleep Paralysis 

When you’re going through sleep paralysis, the only thing you can do to make it better is to breathe and calm down. During your first experience, you might be genuinely terrified. But once you’ve experienced it, you’ll be self-aware of what’s actually happening. Unless it happens because of a sleep disorder, chances are sleep paralysis is merely a symptom of poor sleep quality. Improving sleep quality can involve several lifestyle and dietary changes. Here are a few:

  • Stop consuming caffeine, alcohol or big meals before bed: All three can make your sleep quality worse and therefore lead to sleep paralysis. 
  • Cut down on screen-time: Many experts believe that using laptops and smartphones before bed can have a detrimental effect on your sleep. Try putting your phone on AirPlane mode or simply turning it off and using a good old-fashioned alarm clock instead. 
  • Exercise: Exercise generally improves your sleep quality, but you should avoid exercising at night if you have trouble sleeping.
  • Therapy: If the root of your insomnia is due to anxiety, stress or depression, you should consider going to see a therapist to discuss these issues. With psychological treatment, you can improve your sleep and make sleep paralysis a thing of the past.

There are numerous methods to improving sleep. In addition to those strategies, you could try out hims’ sleep gummy vitamins. These gummies contain melatonin, chamomile and L-theanine — three things shown to help you get a good night’s rest. Though sleep paralysis can be a symptom of something serious, experiencing it from time to time is perfectly normal. And if anything, it could be an opportunity to reflect on how you can improve your sleep in general. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.