Sleep Disorders

27 September 2016

Sleep paralysis is frightening but not dangerous

If you wake up during REM sleep, you may hallucinate but won't be able to move, which can be terrifying.


Imagine you wake up, see a stranger running toward you with a knife and your legs won't move so there's no escape.

Temporary paralysis

Terrifying episodes like these are known as sleep paralysis. They're not dangerous, it's just your brain telling your body it's still in dreamland, according to Texas A&M University researchers.

When you're in the stage of sleep where vivid dreams occur (known as REM sleep), your arms and legs are temporarily paralysed so you can't act out your dreams. If you wake up during this REM stage, you feel unable to move and may even hallucinate, the researchers said.

Read: This frightening disorder haunts many people at night

"When people have a nightmare, they sleep, have a dream and then wake up. When they're experiencing sleep paralysis, they may have a dream when they are already awake," said Dr Steven Bender, director of Texas A&M University's Centre for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine.

"Sleep paralysis is a frightening event," he said in a university news release.

Fortunately, it doesn't last more than a minute or two and it usually happens when people are falling asleep or just waking up.

Depression and anxiety

"People who experience sleep paralysis can have vivid hallucinations because they are dreaming," Bender explained. "People have felt like they're levitating or that someone is in their bedroom or a variety of other strange experiences, like alien abductions."

Read: Are you sleep-deprived?

Since breathing can be irregular during REM sleep, those experiencing sleep paralysis may feel like they're suffocating or are not able to breathe easily.

And it's more common than people realise, affecting up to eight percent of people. It's especially common among young adults, women and blacks. People with depression, anxiety and the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy are also more likely to experience it, the researchers said.

Improving sleep habits can help you avoid these episodes. Bender suggests:

  • Going to bed and waking up around the same time each day
  • Avoiding TV right before bed
  • Not using a laptop or cellphone in bed
  • Avoiding daytime napping
  • Avoiding stimulants close to bedtime

Though it can be a frightening experience, Bender said sleep paralysis isn't a medical emergency.

"If it becomes a regular problem," he said, "then consult your primary health care provider, and they can help you manage it."

Read more:

What are sleep disorders?

Symptoms of sleep disorders

Diagnosing sleep disorders

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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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