If you are awake but cannot move your body, you may have experienced sleep paralysis. It only lasts for a few seconds, even though it can feel much longer. Most of us experience sleep paralysis at least once in our lifetimes, but it can be frightening if you don’t know what’s happening.
What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Typically, as you fall asleep, your brain will paralyze your body so you do not act out your dreams. Sometimes, if you wake up suddenly, especially out of the rapid eye movement (REM) state, your brain does not release your body from paralysis immediately, so you are conscious before you can physically move.
This sounds disturbing enough, but your brain may also still be in a partial dream state. Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by hallucinations caused by your brain continuing to dream as you are waking. You may think you see someone sitting on your chest so you cannot move, or you may think you see people around you as you struggle to get up.
Many people experience sleep paralysis once in a while. The condition can occur more often in those with underlying sleep disorders, like narcolepsy or idiopathic hypersomnia.
For most people, the experience of sleep paralysis lasts only a few seconds. It may feel longer, but your brain and body will quickly reconnect after you wake up.
How Long Does Sleep Paralysis Last?
When the average person experiences sleep paralysis, the brain state lasts only a few seconds, at most. Typically, as you wake up, the brain reconnects the body to the consciousness, so you can move at will. If you suffer an episode of sleep paralysis, this essentially means that your conscious mind has gotten ahead of your sleeping brain.
About 8% of the population has experienced sleep paralysis at some point. Adolescent and adult men and women can experience sleep paralysis once or twice in their lifetimes, with teenagers more likely to experience sleep paralysis, potentially because of their growing and changing brains. Although dream-like hallucinations often accompany sleep paralysis, the experience is more likely to occur in either a hypnagogic (before sleep) or hypnopompic (after sleep) state.
People who may be at higher risk for more episodes of sleep paralysis include those who have:
- A genetic predisposition toward the condition
- Depression or anxiety
- Post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to insomnia
- A panic disorder
- Sleep deprivation
- Shift work or a changing sleep schedule
There are three specific categories of hallucinations that occur alongside sleep paralysis, including:
- Intruder hallucinations or sensed presences, especially those thought to be evil or threatening
- Incubus or demon hallucinations, as though something is sitting on your throat, chest, or abdomen so you cannot breathe
- Vestibular-motor hallucinations, which feel like floating, falling, flying, moving, or an otherwise out-of-body experience
Experiencing sleep paralysis on a regular basis or when you are not asleep can be a sign of a sleep disorder. While there is a low rate of sleep paralysis in the general population, this is a symptom used to diagnose certain sleep disorders like narcolepsy. Between 30% and 50% of people who have narcolepsy have sleep paralysis.
Does Sleep Paralysis Last Longer for People With Narcolepsy?
Those who have certain sleep disorders like narcolepsy will experience sleep paralysis more often. Sometimes, they can experience it during the day or while they are awake.
There are two types of narcolepsy.
- Narcolepsy type 1: This occurs with cataplexy, which is the sudden loss of muscle tone, leading to slurred speech or buckling knees while awake. In extreme cases, the person will become temporarily but completely paralyzed from cataplexy. If an individual with type 1 narcolepsy does not have obvious cataplexy symptoms, they may have low hypocretin (orexin) levels.
- Narcolepsy type 2: Cataplexy is not present and orexin levels are normal or not unusually low, but the person experiences other symptoms of the condition. Without medical treatment, these symptoms can impair their daily function.
People who have narcolepsy may get the same number of hours of sleep as someone with average sleep patterns, but they usually appear fatigued. They may take long naps to make up for frequently waking up at night.
This sleep disturbance can also cause frequent bouts of sleep paralysis, which can be similar to daytime cataplexy. For a person with narcolepsy, these are likely to occur as they fall asleep or as they wake up. Rarely, the person may experience an onset of sleep paralysis while they are awake or after a short nap.
Muscle weakness, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis in someone with narcolepsy may resemble what an average sleeper’s brain does, by paralyzing the body and leading to REM sleep and dreaming. This can occur suddenly, as cataplexy, or it can occur when the person is trying to get a normal night’s sleep.
While these symptoms may never fully go away, the condition can be treated to force the brain into a regular circadian rhythm, usually with prescription medications. The person will take stimulants to stay awake during the day and sedatives to go to sleep and stay asleep for seven to nine hours each night.
They may also take an antidepressant, which can help to manage serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is also associated with sleep cycles.
With medical treatment, sleep paralysis should occur less often. When it does occur, it may last a few seconds longer for people who have narcolepsy compared to those who do not, but it is still a brief event.
How Can You Wake From Sleep Paralysis?
Once you understand what sleep paralysis is and you are being treated by medical professionals for any underlying cause that increases the frequency of episodes, you should feel like you are in better control of the quality of your sleep. While this does not reduce how long an incident of sleep paralysis lasts, it can reduce your panic when it does occur.
During an episode of sleep paralysis, psychologists recommend the following four steps:
- Remind yourself that sleep paralysis is common, benign, and temporary.
- Remember that the hallucinations are not real.
- Repeat a mantra or think about something happy until the episode ends.
- Relax your body. Don’t try to move until the episode has passed.
You cannot truly wake yourself up from sleep paralysis, but episodes will feel briefer and less frightening if you understand what is going on and how to calm yourself.
Preventing Sleep Paralysis Works Best
If you do not have a sleep disorder like narcolepsy, but you experience more frequent bouts of sleep paralysis, you may benefit from practicing good sleep hygiene. This includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every day to reduce or eliminate sleep deprivation that may be causing sleep paralysis.
A study of potential sleep paralysis triggers found that those who had poor sleep hygiene were the most likely to experience sleep paralysis. The groups at the highest risk for more frequent instances of sleep paralysis included:
- People who slept fewer than six hours
- People who slept longer than nine hours
- People who took naps longer than two hours
If you have a mental health concern like depression or PTSD, work with a therapist or physician to manage the condition. Medical treatment for mood disorders and mental illnesses may reduce how often you experience sleep paralysis.
Even though sleep paralysis is frightening and can feel threatening, it typically only lasts for a few seconds. If you experience it again, remind yourself that your brain and body will reconnect very quickly.
Even if you get enough sleep and have no untreated mental conditions, you may experience sleep paralysis. A great way to reduce your risk of this condition is to get a quality mattress. This can help you:
- Feel more comfortable on your side, since sleeping on your back increases sleep paralysis risk
- Reduce how often you wake up at night, as disrupted sleep is a common trigger for sleep paralysis
- Lessen how often you move your fingers, toes, arms, and legs while asleep or half-asleep, as this can also lead to sleep paralysis
If you find yourself tired even after enough sleep or waking up often at night, your mattress may not be right for you. Investing in the best mattress for your needs can improve the quality of your sleep and reduce instances of sleep paralysis.