Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon characterized by an inability to move or speak during sleep, despite conscious or semi-conscious awareness. A typical episode of sleep paralysis is thought to last for minutes, whereas more severe types may persist for hours. Most people experience infrequent short-episodes of sleep paralysis – this is diagnosed as “isolated sleep paralysis” (ISP) – and isn’t considered problematic.
More extreme, long-lasting, and recurrent bouts of sleep paralysis episodes are generally diagnosed as “recurrent isolated sleep paralysis” (RISP). The RISP subtype is estimated to occur in a very smaller percentage of all sleep paralysis cases (3%). However, those experiencing recurrent sleep paralysis are more likely to experience terrifying nightmares, hallucinations, and other unusual sensory perceptions.
Why sleep paralysis is problematic…
Although sleep paralysis doesn’t generally cause any sort of medical harm, it can lead to significant psychological distress, induce anxiety, and may exacerbate existing sleep problems. When a person experiences sleep paralysis, it is thought that an individual has difficulty transitioning smoothly through sleep stages. They may jump from a fully conscious, waking state, to REM (rapid-eye movement sleep) immediately rather than experiencing a gradual transition.
Sleep paralysis can be experienced during the transition from sleep to waking consciousness OR from waking consciousness to sleep. It is believed that it is essentially a hybrid state of alertness with a blending of both REM-induced dream-like sensations and consciousness. A person is consciously alert due to spurts of beta waves and excess alpha waves, yet is physically incapacitated (temporarily) paralyzed as a result of REM.
In some cases a person will experience nightmarish, sleep paralysis hallucinations, such as that of a demonic entity or malevolent presence. Some people even claim to have been tortured by the hallucinatory demon or creature that they perceive. Certainly not all cases are as extreme as to involve demonic entities, but they may trigger significant fear, especially if a person hasn’t determined how to cope.
How To Stop Sleep Paralysis: 10 Prevention Strategies
If you have experienced an episode or multiple episodes of sleep paralysis, and want to avoid another uncomfortable experience, there are preventative measures that can be taken. It should be noted that not all of the preventative tactics will be universally effective. Due to significant individual variation, you may need to do some experimentation to determine what works best for you.
1. Rule out medical conditions
Due to the fact that the exact causes of sleep paralysis remain unknown, it is important to rule out all potential medical conditions that may be contributing to your episodes. This means checking for neurological conditions, working with a sleep specialist (to determine whether you have a sleep disorder), checking hormones, vitamin/micronutrient deficiencies, etc. If you want to make sure you’re not missing something obvious, check with your doctor, explain what’s going on, and determine whether something medical may be the cause.
In addition to ruling out medical conditions, it may be important to rule out exposure to toxins. Unfortunately, most people don’t even think to consider things like: toxic mold, heavy metal exposure, or pesticide exposure for potentially causing sleep paralysis and other abnormalities. One thing that has been linked to sleep disorders, particularly crazy dreams is that of mold exposure.
Should you have a medical condition and/or were exposed to environmental toxins, you’ll want to get them properly treated. In many cases, treating the underlying condition will improve your sleep quality and stop sleep paralysis.
2. Regimented sleep schedule
If you’re experiencing sleep paralysis after you’ve ruled out and/or treated various medical conditions, the next step is to correct your sleep schedule. Researchers speculate that among the most common causes of sleep paralysis is lack of a regimented sleep schedule. In other words, people that experience sleep paralysis are commonly going to bed and waking up at different times each day.
Fluctuation of sleep-wake times is especially common among those who work “shifts” (or who have “shift work sleep disorder“), travel across time zones, teenagers, and those who fail to understand the importance of a regimented sleep schedule. Creating a sleep regimen should be as strict as possible if you hope to prevent or stop sleep paralysis. It isn’t something to “attempt” for a couple days – it’s something you’ll want to stick with for the long-term.
Your sleep regimen should involve: going to bed at the same time each night, waking at the same time each morning, and getting approximately the same number of sleep hours. By having a sleep regimen, your body knows what to expect in regards to how much sleep it will get and should transition through sleep phases more efficiently. When setting a sleep schedule it is important to align it with your body’s circadian rhythm and make sure you are getting enough total sleep (hours).
3. Minimize potential sleep disruptions
It is known that sleep paralysis can be intentionally induced with strategic sleep interruptions. In one study with healthy volunteers (that had never experienced sleep paralysis), researchers were able to manipulate their brain’s into experiencing sleep paralysis. They accomplished this by waking them as soon as they entered REM stage sleep.
Eventually the participants would fall back asleep and transition immediately from a conscious, waking state to that of REM, which increased likelihood of sleep paralysis. This suggests that frequent interruptions, particularly as an individual enters REM stages of sleep, may increase likelihood of sleep paralysis. To avoid experiencing sleep paralysis, you’ll want to minimize the potential for interruptions.
In other words, turn off your phone notifications, block out external noises and lights, and make sure that your partner isn’t going to roll on you in the middle of the night. If you have pets, make sure they aren’t going to bother you in the middle of the night unless it’s urgent. Don’t fall asleep with your TV on, and avoid anything that has the potential to disrupt your sleep.
4. Enhance sleep quality
A regimented sleep schedule that fits your circadian rhythm as well as minimizing potential disruptions can be very helpful for preventing sleep paralysis. However, there are some other tips that you may want to consider to enhance your sleep quality. Avoiding stimulation before bed, blocking RF-EMF radiation (particularly from cell phones), blocking light and sound, and getting a comfortable mattress and pillows can go a long way to improve sleep quality.
- Avoid stimulation before bed: Intense stimulation in the form of a cell phone, computer, television, or other electronic device prior to bed is likely sabotaging your sleep quality. Some experts recommend avoiding electronics 1 to 3 hours before bed.
- Avoid RF-EMF radiation: If you sleep by a computer, cell phone, and or Wi-Fi router – your sleep quality will go down the tank. Avoid radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation if you want your sleep to be optimal. Put your phone on airplane mode and turn off the router before bed; no need for radiation during sleep.
- Block out light: Take steps to darken your room by blocking out all bright lights – even those from your electronics. Put a light-blocking curtain over your windows so that when you sleep, zero light gets through.
- New mattress & pillows: If your current mattress and/or pillows are uncomfortable, consider changing them. An uncomfortable mattress may lead to sleep quality problems, which may make you more prone to sleep paralysis.
- Sound-proofing: There’s nothing worse for your sleep than waking up from an unexpected boisterous drunk, construction project, dogs barking, or birds chirping. You should wake up in accordance to your circadian rhythm, not in the middle of the night from an unexpected noise. Take steps to sound-proof your environment or reduce sound to improve your sleep quality.
5. Increase sleep quantity
Sleep deprivation and/or restriction is a factor that may increase likelihood of developing sleep paralysis. Those who experience sleep paralysis are often chronically sleep deprived and/or restricted, and have a difficult time resetting their circadian rhythm to get out of their funk. Although sleep quality should be emphasized over quantity, you should be getting “enough” sleep so that you feel mentally and physically rejuvenated upon waking.
Most experts suggest shooting for at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night; this is subject to individual variation. If you’re a person engaging in intense physical activity during the day, you may need more than 9 hours. Do what feels right, but don’t skimp on quantity – which may increase your risk of sleep paralysis.
6. Adjust sleeping position
In a majority of sleep paralysis cases, people are sleeping in the “supine” position (i.e. on the back). If you find that you’re experiencing sleep paralysis on your back, logic would suggest trying a different sleep position. You may want to experiment sleeping on your side or even your stomach. If you want to stay sleeping on your back, consider propping your head up more and/or working with the natural curvature of your spine.
It isn’t known precisely why the “supine” position is most associated with sleep paralysis. That said, changing your sleep position may make a difference towards reducing the intensity and/or duration of sleep paralysis.
7. Relaxation / Stress Reduction
You may want to throw some relaxation techniques at the problem if you’re experiencing sleep paralysis. It has been discovered that anxieties, traumas, and depression can increase risk of sleep paralysis. Stress is known to interfere with sleep, and overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system may be the primary culprit in some cases.
If you are stressed, you may want to consider taking up meditation, self-hypnosis, or guided imagery before bed. Even something as simple as deep breathing may help lessen anxiety, decrease activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and reduce stress. The stress reduction should drastically help improve sleep quality, quantity, and may be beneficial for stopping sleep paralysis.
There are a variety of supplements that can be utilized to improve sleep quality, but the most common is that of melatonin. If you’re taking other medications, beware of potential contraindications and interactions before using any supplement. If you’re not using any drugs or medications, melatonin is perhaps the best supplement for resetting your biological clock.
It can be especially effective among those who work “shifts” and/or experiencing “jet lag” from travel across time zones. There are plenty of other natural relaxants that can be used to tone down sympathetic nervous system activity and enhance sleep quality such as: magnesium, valerian root, L-tryptophan, and 5-HTP.
9. Drugs: Add or Subtract
If you’re on drugs, it is important to consider that they may be a direct cause of and/or contributing to your sleep paralysis. If you started taking “Drug X” and noticed that you developed sleep paralysis while taking it, but never had an episode prior, it may be more than a mere coincidence. Those that are taking drugs should realize that many pharmaceuticals, illicit substances, and even over-the-counter medications could contribute to sleep paralysis.
Individuals that ingest nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol frequently may also be more prone to sleep paralysis. If you suspect that a particular drug may be contributing to sleep paralysis, you may want to stop using it. If you’re on a pharmaceutical drug, always talk with your doctor before stopping as a result of sleep paralysis.
If you’re not taking any drugs and have already tested various supplements for stopping sleep paralysis, you may want to consider taking some. It is said that some people have success taking antidepressants – particularly SSRIs and tricyclics for the treatment of sleep paralysis. Other pharmaceuticals like Z-drugs (sleeping pills) may prove to be effective.
10. Brain Waves
Another strategy would be to deliberately manipulate activity of brain waves prior to falling asleep. Although not tested for treatment of sleep paralysis, it could be beneficial for certain individuals. This could be accomplished by using one of the many types of brainwave entrainment such as: listening to isochronic tones at a specific frequency, neurofeedback, or even electrical stimulation.
There are some potential dangers of brainwave entrainment, therefore this treatment may not be suitable for everyone. Do your own research and understand the risks before you alter your brainwaves in effort to prevent sleep paralysis. In theory, entraining the right brainwaves may tone down sympathetic nervous system activity and help the brain efficiently shift through the various sleep stages.
Coping with Sleep Paralysis…
If you are in the early stages of attempting to stop sleep paralysis episodes, it may take awhile. Don’t expect immediate results – it can take months before you adhere to a regimented sleep schedule, your circadian rhythm fully adjusts, and your sympathetic nervous system is toned down. In the meantime, you should probably be aware of some coping techniques for episodes of sleep paralysis.
- Wiggling fingers/toes: Although anecdotal, many people have found that consciously attempting to wiggle their fingers and/or toes helps them stop sleep paralysis in its tracks. You may not be able to lift your arm, move your leg, or scream for help – but using your conscious awareness to “wiggle” your fingers or toes may help you “wake up” from feeling trapped.
- Acceptance: When you’re experiencing an episode of sleep paralysis, it may be terrifying and uncomfortable. You may sense the presence of another entity and in an extreme scenario, you may even be hallucinating. Practice accepting your experience as a byproduct of faulty cycling through sleep stages. Although the natural tendency will be to resist the experience, accept what is happening and realize you have nothing to fear – your brain’s REM activity is playing tricks on your conscious perception.
- Sleep specialists: If you’re still experiencing sleep problems, you may want to consult a sleep specialist. They will be able to monitor your brain activity and may be able to recommend a particular solution. Sleep specialists have seen sleep paralysis before, and know what it takes to help treat this condition.
- Psychotherapy: Should you have a difficult time coping with sleep paralysis, you may want to consider enrolling in psychotherapy. Therapists may be able to give suggestions regarding what you can do to cope with the condition. This can be particularly helpful if you have PTSD and know that the post-traumatic stress is a direct contributor to the sleep paralysis. With the right strategies and therapeutic support, it is possible to overcome PTSD and improve sleep.
- Sleep journal: For some individuals it may be helpful to consider a sleep journal. Upon waking, write about what you experienced during your sleep paralysis. Document how long it lasted, and keep track of how well you slept. Write down whether you are adhering to your sleep schedule, whether you avoided stimulation before bed, etc. Sleep journaling can help you keep track of all factors that may be contributing to sleep paralysis.
Have you dealt with chronic sleep paralysis?
If you’ve dealt with sleep paralysis episodes, whether they’ve been infrequent or recurrent, feel free to share whether you’ve been able to reduce it in intensity and/or severity. If you’ve been successful in preventing, reducing, or stopping sleep paralysis in its tracks, be sure to share with others what worked for you. To help others get a better understanding of your situation, describe the severity of your sleep paralysis and what you believe caused it.