What Is Sleep Paralysis?
Before we discuss the sleep paralysis causes, symptoms, whether you should be afraid of them or not and what to do when you find yourself in sleep paralysis, I think it's useful to start with the question:
What is sleep paralysis in the first place?
First let me say that sleep paralysis is more common that you'd think. It happens to a lot of people and unless there is an underlying physical (or psychological problem causing it), it is quite normal and nothing to be afraid of. Seriously. Let me explain.
You find yourself in sleep paralysis when your body is temporarily paralyzed either when you wake up sometimes in the middle of the night or right in the morning. In most cases you can't move and you get scared because you don't understand WHY moving is impossible (except for your eyelids and sometimes your fingers).
Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night - Ryan Hurd
Main Symptoms Of Sleep Paralysis
The fact is that we all go through sleep paralysis during the night, we just are not conscious of it unless our brain wakes up before the body, when the two are not in sync.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of sleep paralysis. If you get into this state, you might not have all these symptoms. Sometime you might experience only one, other times a couple of them combined.
- Your muscles or your entire body feels numb (sometimes you feel a tingling sensation as well)
- You might feel some sort of vibrations in your body
- Hypnagogic halucinations. Now this is the fun part (and the scariest at times). This is when you will start to see weird things. This is the part where people say that they have met demons, ghosts and all sorts of strange animals who were hovering above their beds. This truly can be scary (even if you know they can't hurt you)
- Halucinations in the form of feeling an army of ants marching on your body. Some people said they have a feeling that the body is covered in frogs
- You might hear various sounds, a buzzing sound, a popping sound, a crackling, exploding or ringing in your ears. Sometimes I hear a loud popping sound like when a cork was just pulled loudly from a bottle of champagne
- Finally a feeling that you're not comfortable in your skin, like somebody is watching you
Why The Body's Need For Sleep Paralysis?
Finally we come to the main question - what are the sleep paralysis causes, WHY do we go through this experience?
People who don't know about the real causes of sleep paralysis usually say that even to experience it once in their life is too much (read further down to see why, on the other hand, many people are actually learning HOW TO experience sleep paralysis and why - and no, they're not crazy!)
Briefly put, the reason why our body goes into a light paralysis during the night is so that we don't act out our dream.
Just think about the many different actions (flying, fighting, jumping, swimming, etc) that we do in our sleep.
Especially when we sleep with a partner, imagine if we acted out on these impulses, if we moved our hands and entire body based on what we were doing in our sleep.
Let's just say that a blue eye would be the least of the problems our partner came out with during the night.
This is why our body gets into a state of sleep paralysis (also called SP or REM atonia, or simply the old hag) and the only part of our body moving is our eyelids. How many times have you watched somebody sleeping (even our pets) and their closed eyes were moving frantically all over the place? We usually say in this case 'They are dreaming', and we are usually right.
Basically the movement of our eyes closely follows what happens to us in the dream, but the rest of our body is paralyzed.
This is very normal, and it is a safe-guard put in place by our mind to stop us from moving and flailing around during sleep - and hitting somebody else in the process.
What Are The Sleep Paralysis Causes When We Wake Up?
But now the question remains, why - when we wake up - we are sometimes paralyzed (and experience some of the scary symptoms above)? Why can't we move? I mean afterall we are already awake.
The reason for it is the following. In some cases the sleep paralysis that happens during the REM sleep (REM cycle is the time of the night when we're actually dreaming) doesn't immediately turn off when we wake up. The mind thinks that we are still asleep so it protects the body from moving.
Yes, you feel, you know you are awake, but you can't move (and then there are those illusions of weird noises, visions or feelings around your body that can scare the living daylights out of anyone).
Simply put, the mind needs first to realize that you are in fact awake, and then it will release its hold on the body and you can wake up. I'll tell you further down what to do to get there.
As a sidenote, this very state what is usually called "mind awake, body asleep". And interestingly enough this is the very state that many people who are in pursuit of learning astral projection (also called out of body experiences or OBE) and lucid dreaming WANT TO EXPERIENCE.
This is the very state that many are trying to induce by various techniques (and let me tell you, it's not so easy!).
The reason is because the SP stage is the onset of astral projection.
However, unless you know about sleep paralysis and you're trying to actually create the state of mind and body, for the average person, for your mom, dad, your neighbor who have never heard of lucid dreaming, astral projection and similar, this IS a terrifying state.
Especially when this is the very state when you experience hallucinations such as demons or ghosts watching you right there in your bedroom, and you are not aware that it is simply your mind hallucinating (as it thinks you're still dreaming, which is the place where usually anything can happen).
Is There Any Danger To Sleep Paralysis?
And what to do to end it
Here again, I am not touching on some very seldom psychological or physical causes of sleep paralysis. I'm talking about your average person's experience with it so that you get an understanding of what it is, what to do about it and why it simply can't harm you.
That's right. Sleep paralysis is not harmful at all (even if you think it is due to all those hallucinations that you're seeing or the feelings of animals crawling all over you). It's just your body's response to your mind having woken up a bit too early.
A sleep paralysis can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Unless you were trying to induce sleep paralysis for lucid dreaming or astral projection, in order to be able to finally move, all you need to do is simply wait it out.
That's right. Don't try to fight it. Don't try to move forcefully and don't struggle to get out of it. Don't enter into a panic attack.
Such an emotional response to it might just prolong your paralysis because your limbic parts of the brain are stimulated (like when you are in a dream), so your mind wrongly will think that you are still in a dream state and the defense mechanism will stay in place to not allow you to move.
Once your body realizes that you are in fact awake, it will simply snap out of it and you can move your body out of bed.
There is, in fact, an additional way to get out of sleep paralysis state: start to wiggle your toes or your fingers. Many people have reported that this wakes up the body and brings it out of paralysis faster than if you wait it out. Doesn't work for everybody, but it's worth a try, and it's safe too.
Inducing Sleep Paralysis
This section is only for those who consciously want to induce a state of sleep paralysis so they can explore lucid dreaming or the astral plane in an out of body experience.
f you're just here because you were trying to find a reason as to what causes sleep paralysis and what to do about it, feel free to skip it (although you might be surprised just how many people are consciously trying to induce sleep paralysis through something called the lucid dreaming WILD technique!)
- First of all find a quiet time when you are not disturbed (by the phone ringing or somebody walking about the house).
- Also find a quiet place, usually the bed or in a very comfortable couch. The idea here is to be very comfortable indeed. The position should be comfy as well, without any urges to go to the bathroom for example.
- Lie down, close your eyes (if you have too much light coming in the room, either close the blinds or use one of these sleeping masks that totally block the light entering your eyelids).
- Now focus entirely on your breathing. If you find your thoughts wandering about, just gently steer them back to your breathing...in...out...in...out
- Allow your mind to clear, to become empty, and as you start to feel sleepy, you might notice that your breathing becomes more shallow, it slows down.
- Usually this is the time when you will notice a sensation of tingling all over the body (it's quite a pleasant feeling, one of the first cues that something is happening).
- The next stage is that your limbs will become quite heavy and numb.
- Now the most important part to not snap out of it is to simply not move. At some point your body will signal to you that it is tired, that you should turn, or swallow or open your eyes, or it will twice. Resist the urge and simply lay still. Initially you might find this step difficult, but eventually, with practice you will get there.
- From here you will enter into the 'mind awake but body asleep' stage. You will be fully conscious but you won't be able to move your body - aka you'll be in sleep paralysis. Now from here you can roll out of your body (or use the rope technique to have an out of body experience), or you can create yourself a dream and jump right it - while being fully lucid that it's your dream and you can do anything you want in there.
Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis?
mersault01 on May 23, 2013:
It is scary but it could be controlled. You just have to relax, that is key. It is like on some hallucinogen drug, the more you panic the worst trip is :D
It could be also great spirit experience
mltnpnw on March 15, 2013:
Sleep paralysis happened to me a couple of times as a teenager. It was scary. At the time I had never heard of sleep paralysis or of any one having a similar experience. I would have found out that my dad had it happen to him as a kid if I had talked about it back then. It was so scary at the time that I didn't mention it to anyone for a couple of decades.
mumsgather on October 11, 2012:
@kislanyk: Yes, I didn't mention it but that's what I usually do to get out of it. It takes tremendous effort though.
Marika (author) from Cyprus on October 11, 2012:
@mumsgather: I know what you mean. Btw, I've just added an extra tip for those who want to get up faster from the phase of sleep paralysis - try to wiggle your toes or fingers. Usually those extremities are still free to move. Many people have reported that it works for them to break them free of that frightful paralysis.
mumsgather on October 11, 2012:
I have epilepsy and I sometimes when I lack sleep, I have sleep paralysis. The two are not related and my neuro brushes it aside. I know what sleep paralysis is and yet, it is still a very frightening experience each time. I will try to forcefully get myself out of it because it is too scary not to be able to wake up when you know you are awake and want to. I am also afraid to go right back to sleep because if I wake up and fall back asleep immediately, I will go into the sleep paralysis cycle again. So, I would get up, go to the bathroom, have a drink till I'm full awake before returning to bed. I haven't tried not doing anything about it as you suggested because it is too scary. I don't have the hallucinations that you describe, I only know that I am awake and yet I can't wake up.
WriterJanis2 on December 20, 2011:
I have and it was very frightening at the time.
Marika (author) from Cyprus on October 01, 2011:
Yes, and this is right so. Your mind awakes faster than your body (they are not in synch) so it will take you a few seconds, up to a few minutes for your body to finally catch up. The lucid dreaming part is just something that I found interesting that there are people who are actively pursuing the feeling of sleep paralysis because it CAN induce lucid dreaming (or astral projection).
But the underlying issue is what I said before. Try to stay calm, don't take hasty breaths and panic, and your body will be able to move very soon.
KarenTBTEN on October 01, 2011:
I have occasionally had lucid dreams, but there's something very different I was thinking of when I read the title. I also occasionally wake up -- my mind, at least -- because my blanket or something is too tight against my face and I am having trouble breathing. I feel like I must move so I can breathe, but at first I'm paralyzed and can't move.