What Triggers Sleep Paralysis? Analyzing Its Common Culprits

July 25, 2023 (Last updated on: July 25, 2023)
A woman is struggling from sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis, a phenomenon where an individual cannot move or speak when falling asleep or waking up, is a fascinating yet terrifying experience for many.

It’s a peculiar sleep disorder that often leaves people searching for answers. This article aims to shed light on what triggers the symptoms of sleep paralysis and how to manage it.

A Typical Sleep Paralysis Experience

The night is late, and the room is bathed in a calm, dark silence, broken only by the rhythmic hum of the ceiling fan overhead. Sleep has been elusive, like a shy creature hiding just beyond the reach of consciousness. After tossing and turning, finally, I feel myself surrendering to the lull of sleep.

Something strange happens just as I’m on the brink of falling asleep. I’m suddenly alert, sharply aware of my surroundings, but my body…it’s as though it isn’t mine anymore. I’m locked within it, trapped inside my flesh and bones.

I try to move, to sit up, but it’s as if I’m encased in concrete. My limbs, heavy as lead, refuse to obey my mind’s commands. My voice, too, is trapped. I want to call out, to scream, but all I manage is a hollow whisper, a ghost of a sound.

And then, the pressure starts. A suffocating weight settles on my chest, making each breath arduous. I try to resist it, to push back against this unseen force, but it’s relentless. It feels like an invisible demon has chosen to rest on me, pressing me into the mattress.

The darkness of the room starts to shift and writhe. I can sense a presence, something ominous and unknown. My eyes, the only things I seem to have control over, dart across the room. I see shadows, fleeting and sinister, out of the corners of my eyes. I hear whispers, feel the brush of spectral fingers, and my heart pounds, a staccato drumbeat in the silent room.

The real and unreal blur, twisted together in a macabre dance, and I feel pressure stuck in the middle, paralyzed, trapped in this terrifying limbo between sleep and wakefulness. Time distorts and stretches out. It feels like an eternity, but it’s probably only been a few minutes.

Just as suddenly as it started, it ended. The pressure lifts. The hallucinations dissipate. I can move again. My chest heaves, sucking in deep gulps of air. It’s over. The dark room is just that again – a room. My heart gradually slows, and relief washes over me, calm and soothing.

It’s a terrifying experience, sleep paralysis, a nocturnal horror show that leaves me shaken and dreading the approach of another night.

What Triggers Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis occurs when the synchronization between the brain and body experiences a slight hiccup during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep transitions.

During REM sleep, where our most vivid dreams occur, our bodies become “paralyzed” to prevent us from acting out these dreams physically. However, if you awaken before the REM cycle has been completed, you might be caught in an alarming state where you’re conscious but unable to move or speak.

Several factors can trigger this unsettling experience. These include sleep deprivation, an irregular sleep schedule, engaging in shift work, and certain mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder and panic disorder.

A study published in “Sleep Medicine Reviews” also found that a family history of sleep paralysis increases the likelihood of experiencing it, suggesting a possible genetic component.

Sleep Paralysis as a Sleep Disorder

Sleep paralysis is classified as a type of parasomnia, a group of sleep disorders that involve unwanted events or experiences that can prevent sleep paralysis that occur while you are falling asleep, sleeping, or waking up.

While it can be terrifying to fall asleep, it’s important to note that sleep paralysis is not considered a medical emergency. However, recurring episodes of sleep paralysis could indicate underlying issues such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea and should be evaluated by a sleep specialist.

The book “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem” elaborates on these potential connections.

Delving Deeper into Sleep Paralysis

The Phenomenology of Sleep Paralysis

People who experience sleep paralysis describe it as a few seconds or minutes of complete immobility while fully conscious.

Some report feeling a crushing pressure on their chests, others describe seeing hallucinations, often of shadowy figures, and some even feel an intense fear as they’re trapped in a body that refuses to respond.

The experience of sleep paralysis is not just a physical one; it also has significant psychological aspects. It’s common for people to feel anxious or fearful during an episode, which can further exacerbate the situation.

Recurrent Sleep Paralysis

Recurrent sleep paralysis, also known as recurrent isolated sleep paralysis, is when a person experiences multiple episodes of sleep paralysis. It’s linked to irregular sleeping patterns and sleep deprivation. It can also be associated with other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy.

Recurrent sleep paralysis can be particularly distressing due to its repetitive nature. It’s crucial for individuals experiencing recurrent sleep paralysis to seek professional help to manage their symptoms and improve their sleep hygiene.

If sleep paralysis feels left unmanaged, recurrent sleep paralysis can lead to increased anxiety around sleep, exacerbating the problem.

Coping with Sleep Paralysis

Managing Sleep Paralysis

If you’re experiencing sleep paralysis, several strategies may help. Improving sleep hygiene, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and managing stress levels can all reduce episodes of sleep paralysis.

Certain sleep medicine, such as those used to treat narcolepsy, may also effectively treat sleep paralysis. It’s advised to consult with a sleep specialist for personalized advice and treatment options for sleep problems. In his book “Understanding Sleep and Dreaming,” William H. Moorcroft provides an in-depth overview of various treatment options for sleep disorders, including sleep paralysis.

Preventing Recurrent Sleep Paralysis

Preventing recurrent sleep paralysis involves addressing its underlying causes. This could mean treating associated sleep disorders like sleep apnea or regulating sleep patterns to ensure adequate quality and quantity of sleep. Lifestyle changes such as avoiding excessive daytime sleepiness, jet lag, and shift work can also be beneficial.

Understanding your sleep patterns and triggers for sleep paralysis can be essential for prevention. A sleep diary can help identify and regulate sleep patterns and triggers associated with sleep paralysis episodes.

What is the main cause of sleep paralysis?

The leading cause of sleep paralysis is often related to sleep deprivation, irregular sleep schedule, or specific mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder and panic disorder. It can also have a genetic component, as those with a family history of sleep paralysis are likelier to experience it.

How do you break out of sleep paralysis?

There’s no surefire way to “break out” of sleep paralysis, but some people find that trying to move a small part of their body (like a finger or a toe) or trying to make a noise can help to end the episode. Additionally, focusing on slow, deliberate breathing can help stop sleep paralysis.

What causes sleep paralysis demon?

The “sleep paralysis demon” is a term used to describe the hallucinations some people experience during sleep paralysis. These hallucinations are thought to be caused by the brain transitioning between stages of sleep while awareness remains. This can result in dream-like images being imposed on the waking world.

How rare is it to have sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is not particularly rare. It’s estimated that about 7.6% of the general population, 28.3% of students, and 31.9% of psychiatric patients experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis, according to a study published in “Sleep Medicine Reviews.”

Can sleep paralysis hurt me?

While experienced sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience, it’s generally considered harmless. However, if you’re experiencing recurrent sleep paralysis, it might indicate an underlying sleep disorder or mental health condition that needs addressing.

What are the horrors of sleep paralysis?

The “horrors” of sleep paralysis usually refer to the intense fear and helplessness individuals feel when they can’t move or speak, even though they’re conscious. Some people diagnose sleep paralysis also experience hallucinations, which can be frightening.

How do you wake someone up from sleep paralysis?

If you notice someone is in a state of sleep paralysis (they seem awake but unable to or cannot move or speak), gently touching them or speaking to them can often be enough to disrupt the episode. However, it’s important to avoid shaking them vigorously as this could make them feel startled or scared.


Understanding what triggers sleep paralysis and how to manage it is critical to reducing the fear and anxiety associated with this sleep disorder. While sleep paralysis can be a frightening experience, remember that it’s a common occurrence and is usually harmless.

If you’re frequently experiencing sleep paralysis, don’t hesitate to seek help. Numerous resources are available, from clinical psychology interventions to basic medical sleep research studies, to help you navigate this sleep disorder and improve your sleep health.