What Are Sleep Paralysis Causes?

Sleep paralysis is a condition that affects some people during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The brain is active and has vivid dreams but the muscles of the body are switched off and unresponsive. You are unable to talk or move during this stage of sleep. It can be a very frightening experience and previously, people believed it to be caused by the supernatural. Sleep paralysis is not due to an underlying mental problem, but just that the body doesn’t transition smoothly through the different stages of sleep.

Possible Causes of Sleep Paralysis

Although there has not been extensive research on sleep paralysis causes, it is believed there are some people more at risk than others. These are:

  • People with anxiety disorders
  • Those with bipolar disorders
  • People affected by post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)
  • People with depression

It is possible that people who fall in the above risk groups have altered brain chemistry that could predispose them to impaired transitioning through the various stages of sleep. Other factors thought to play a role:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Side effects of some medicines, like those used for the treatment of ADHD
  • Sleep disorders, like narcolepsy (brain’s impaired ability to regulate sleep) or shift work disorder (changing sleep schedules)
  • Sleep apnea
  • May be hereditary but there is no conclusive proof
  • Sleeping on your back for some people
  • Drug abuse

Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

  • Sleep paralysis is defined as not being able to move or speak. This inability can last up to 2 minutes.
  • The episode may end on its own or if you’re roused by someone else.
  • The person may experience a choking sensation or pressure on the chest, as if someone is sitting on your chest.
  • Some people have hallucinations caused by the brain that is still in a dreaming stage.

Tips to Wake up from Sleep Paralysis

Looking for sleep paralysis causes alone can't help you get rid of the horror of sleep paralysis. You need to develop proper coping mechanisms to minimize your mental stress. Try to remember your chosen mechanism and implement it when experiencing the sleep paralysis. A few possible coping mechanisms:

1. Clench and Unclench Your Fist

Most feelings of paralysis occur on the chest, throat and abdomen. You may be able to rouse yourself by trying to move your hands.

2. Wiggle Your Toe

Keep focused on the movement you create in your toe to break the paralysis.

3. Calm Down

This will only intensify the body’s response to the fear. Try to remain calm. Recognizing an episode and repeating an affirmation mentally to remind yourself that this is temporary. An example of an affirmation can be, "I am okay and this is only sleep paralysis".

4. Bring Your Attention to Your Breath

Focus your attention onto your breathing and control it. Breathe in normally but exhale as fully as you can. Remind yourself mentally that you can breathe and this will calm you down and you will wake up.

5. Rely on Your Religious Belief

Look towards your religious or spiritual beliefs to help you out of sleep paralysis. Focus on your special, calming idea to reduce any feelings of fear. It can be a religious figure, angels to protect you, etc.

6. Other Tips

Try to cough in order to wake up from sleep paralysis. Some people believe the best way to slip out of sleep paralysis is to scrunch your face up. Doing this a few times continuously should wake you up instantly. 

How to Deal with Sleep Paralysis

Even though sleep paralysis causes are not clear, there are ways to prevent the condition. The simplest way to minimize your risk of having an episode of sleep paralysis is to ensure that you get enough sleep. Medication can be prescribed but only in very severe cases.

Improve Your Sleep Habits

  • Maintain a regular sleep cycle. Go to sleep every night and get up in the morning at about the same time daily. Normally, healthy adults require 6 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Your sleeping area should be dark, quiet and be at a temperature you find neither too hot nor too cold.
  • Your mattress should be comfortable.
  • Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom.
  • Exercise regularly, but not too close to bedtime because you may become too hyped-up after exercise to wind down sufficiently enough to fall asleep.
  • Reduce your caffeine which acts as a stimulant to your nervous system. This is the last thing you want at bedtime.
  • Avoid eating close to bedtime because your body will need to digest the meal, making it difficult for body to relax.
  • Avoid alcohol before your bedtime.

Take Medications

Since sleep paralysis causes include some mental disorders, a short course of antidepressant, like clomipramine, may alter your brain chemistry and regulate the REM stage of sleep. It may also help reduce any hallucinations you may experience. You may be prescribed the antidepressant course for a month or two then evaluated for its effects. However, taking medications to alter your brain chemistry has other side effects on your body. These possible side effects are:

  • Blurred vision
  • Dry mouth
  • Urinary retention
  • Constipation
  • Excessive sweating

The body usually adjusts to these side effects and after 7 to 10 days, they may reduce or disappear. If they still exist or even become more serious, see your medical practitioner.