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Sleep Paralysis: What It Is and How to Stop It Happening

Sleep paralysis is harmless, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. Here’s how focusing on sleep debt, sleep hygiene, and circadian rhythm can keep it at bay.
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Man sleeping on his back looking like he could have sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis can feel as scary as it sounds. You wake up, but you can’t move your arms or legs, open your eyes, or even call for help. Your body’s paraylzed while your mind starts panicking. But, thankfully, sleep paralysis is also short lived. It can last anywhere from a few seconds up to 20 minutes, but the average episode lasts for six minutes. It’s not uncommon either – almost 8% of people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.

However, just because it’s harmless and relatively common doesn’t make it any less of a stressful experience. In this blog post, we’ll cover what is happening during sleep paralysis and how focusing on sleep debt, sleep hygiene, and circadian rhythm can reduce the likelihood of an episode. 

What is Sleep Paralysis? 

Essentially, sleep paralysis is when your mind is awake, but you’re unable to move your body or even speak. During a normal night’s sleep, we move through several sleep cycles and phases of sleep. One of these is the rapid eye movement phase, or REM phase. This is where you dream and — as the name suggests — your eyes move quickly under your eyelids. 

To stop your body moving and acting out your dreams, your muscles are temporarily paralyzed during the REM sleep phase. Most of the time, your muscles are unparalyzed before you wake up and notice anything has happened. But when an episode of sleep paralysis hits, there’s a delay in your brain telling your body that REM is over, meaning your mind wakes up and becomes conscious of what’s happening, but your body thinks it’s still asleep and is unable to move. Sleep paralysis can also happen as you transition into REM sleep. 

While sleep paralysis itself isn’t a dangerous condition, it can cause a lot of distress, even once the episode is over. And what’s more, people can worry it’ll happen again, causing anxiety that can start impacting their sleep — which can make sleep paralysis even more likely to happen, starting a vicious cycle. 

What are the Causes of Sleep Paralysis? 

Experts still aren’t sure why, but sleep paralysis has been linked with sleep disorders like narcolepsy, medical conditions like seizure disorders, and mental health disorders such as PTSD, panic disorder, and general anxiety disorders. People with a family history of sleep paralysis may also be more likely to experience it. 

It affects young adults the most, but anyone can experience an episode. It may be triggered by stress, a lack of sleep, disrupted sleep patterns — such as from jet lag or shift work — or by other sleep disturbances. Sleeping on your back may also make it more likely to happen. One sleep study found that more back sleepers reported episodes of sleep paralysis than all other positions combined.

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

It may feel different for everyone, and even different for each person if it happens more than once, but the key symptoms of sleep paralysis include:

  • Inability to move, speak, or open your eyes, despite being awake
  • Feeling pressure on the chest — also known as the incubus phenomenon
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hallucinations — like hearing or seeing a person or presence in the room 
  • Feeling like you’re floating, flying, or having other out-of-body experiences

How to Treat Sleep Paralysis 

While we can’t completely control if or when we will experience a sleep paralysis episode, there are a few things we can do to reduce the likelihood of it happening. These include trying to avoid sleeping on your back, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep each night. 

Treatment may also include addressing the underlying issue if sleep paralysis is being triggered by another health condition. If your sleep paralysis is happening frequently, or seriously impacting your quality of life, speak with a medical professional or sleep specialist. 

Here are the things you can focus on in your daily life to reduce the likelihood of an episode:  

Keep Sleep Debt Low 

RISE app showing how much sleep  debt you have
The RISE app calculates your sleep debt and keeps track as you pay it back.

Sleep deprivation can trigger sleep paralysis, so it’s important to prioritize getting enough sleep each night. The RISE app can calculate your sleep need — the amount of sleep you need each night — and give you a number to aim for in hours and minutes. 

You can’t control this number — it’s determined by genetics, just like your height or eye color. And while the average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so, 13.5% of the population may actually need 9 hours or more sleep a night. 

In a perfect world, we’d all be meeting our sleep need each night, but we know that’s not how life works. Instead of worrying about every minute of lost sleep though, focus instead on your overall sleep debt. This is the amount of sleep you owe your body over the last 14 nights. So if you need 8 hours 30 minutes of sleep a night, but you’ve only been getting 7, you’ll have built up quite a lot of sleep debt. 

We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours. This will not only allow you to feel and perform your best each day, it’ll keep sleep deprivation low, reducing the chance of sleep paralysis. 

If you’ve built up a lot of sleep debt you can “pay it back” by: 

  • Taking naps: Take a 10-to-90-minute nap during your afternoon dip in energy (see the RISE app’s Energy screen for the timing of this each day). 
  • Going to sleep a little earlier
  • Sleeping in a little later: Try to keep this to under an hour however so as to not disrupt your circadian rhythm too much (more on this soon). 
  • Maintaining good sleep hygiene: If you don’t have time to get in some extra sleep, focus on practicing good sleep hygiene. This will reduce sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (the amount you wake up in the night), meaning you spend more of your time in bed actually sleeping

Focus on Sleep Hygiene

Practicing good sleep hygiene can also decrease how often sleep paralysis happens. Sleep hygiene includes behaviors you can do throughout the day to help you fall asleep faster and get the amount of sleep you need each night. 

Here’s what to focus on:

  • Wake up and go to sleep at the same times each day: As much as you can, keep a consistent sleep schedule to avoid disrupting your circadian rhythm and minimize sleep disruptions. 
  • Get bright light in the morning: As soon as possible after waking up, get 10 minutes of natural light. This will regulate your circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep come nighttime and get the sleep you need.
  • Dim the lights come evening: About 90 minutes before bed, dim the lights and put on blue light blocking glasses. This ensures your brain can produce enough of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals too close to bedtime: All three of these things can delay and disrupt sleep. RISE can tell you the ideal time for your last coffee, alcoholic drink, and meal based on your circadian rhythm each day. 
  • Wind down before bed: Stress is a key trigger for sleep paralysis, so be sure to set aside time to relax and destress before bed. Engage in relaxing activities like reading, journaling, doing yoga, or listening to calming music. 
  • Take a warm shower or bath before bed: This not only helps you relax (see the point above), but stepping out of the warm water will actually help your core body temperature drop before bed, making it easier to fall asleep. 
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet: Invest in blackout curtains, an eye mask, and earplugs, and keep your bedroom at a cool 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit to promote sleep.  

Align with Your Circadian Rhythm 

RISE app showing your energy peak and dip times
The RISE app will tell you your Melatonin Window, giving you a one-hour bedtime to aim for.

Beyond improving your sleep habits, you should also consider your circadian rhythm. This is the roughly 24-hour cycle that controls, amongst other things, when you feel awake and sleepy. 

The timing of your circadian rhythm will depend on whether you’re an early bird, night owl, or something in between. And it’ll also depend on factors like light exposure and your previous night’s sleep. RISE uses these things to predict your circadian rhythm each day.

One of the key things you can do once you know the timing of your circadian rhythm is match your bedtime with your Melatonin Window in the RISE app. This is the roughly one-hour window when your brain will be producing the most melatonin it will all night. If you go to bed around this time, you’ll have the easiest time falling and staying asleep.

And if you align your sleep and wake up times with when your body naturally wants to do these things, you’ll have a much easier time getting the sleep you need, reducing the chances of sleep paralysis.  

Keep Sleep Paralysis at Bay 

Sleep paralysis can be a scary experience, especially if it happens to you more than once. But there are a few key things you can do to reduce the chances of it happening again. With help from the RISE app, you can find out your sleep need and focus on getting enough shut-eye each night, maintain good sleep hygiene, and stay in sync with your circadian rhythm — all of which can reduce the chances of sleep paralysis, making every night, and day, better. 

 

 

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