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Sleep paralysis: Trapped in the sleeping body

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Written by Wiebke Posmyk • Medical editor

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The mind is already wide awake - but the body is still in sleep mode: With sleep paralysis, you are unable to move, open your eyes or speak. This phenomenon, which can occur when waking up or falling asleep, lasts for seconds to minutes.

Waking up in the morning is usually so natural that you don't have to think about it. During sleep, most of the muscles relax and prevent the sleeper from actually turning dreams into action. When a person wakes up, the muscles are usually ready for immediate use again. However, sometimes this process is disturbed: while the mind is awake, the body muscles feel paralyzed. Despite great efforts, it is not possible to open the eyes. You cannot move or call for help.

Different causes

Sleep paralysis shows up during the transition from wakefulness to sleep or vice versa. Usually it arises when you wake up (hypgnagogic sleep paralysis), less often it is noticeable while falling asleep (hypnapompic sleep paralysis). The feeling of paralysis usually affects all of the skeletal muscles, with the exception of the respiratory muscles and the muscles that control eye movements. Many of those affected also report sleep-related hallucinations that they experience during sleep paralysis. So some have the feeling that there is a person standing by their bedside. Some perceive images or hear noises that are objectively absent.

It should come as no surprise that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by anxiety and panic, especially when it is first experienced. Who wouldn't be scared if suddenly the muscles no longer do what they want? Good to know: Sleep paralysis is not dangerous - but the feeling of not being able to control the body and being trapped in it can be frightening and very stressful.

Where does sleep paralysis come from?

Often, sleep paralysis occurs as part of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a disease in which the natural sleep-wake cycle is disturbed. Typical symptoms are excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks out of the blue and a sudden slackening of the holding muscles, so that the person affected involuntarily collapses.

Sleep paralysis can also occur independently of narcolepsy. Some people are affected only once in their life, with others the phenomenon repeats itself - sometimes several times a night. Disturbances in the sleep-wake rhythm can promote sleep paralysis, for example through shift work, after jet lag or in the case of sleep disorders. But stress and some mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders can also increase the likelihood of sleep paralysis.

What helps with sleep paralysis?

If sleep paralysis occurs more often, you should get examined. Sleep doctors can find out whether narcolepsy or other physical illness is behind it and treat the cause accordingly.

So far there is no therapy against sleep paralysis, the effectiveness of which has been sufficiently proven by studies. Antidepressants, which suppress the REM phase of sleep, may help.

The important thing is to avoid the possible triggers as much as possible. This includes, for example, ensuring a balanced sleep-wake cycle, including regular bedtime and sufficient sleep. If stress triggers or worsens sleep paralysis, stress management training can be useful, and psychotherapy can help with mental illness.

Some people can shorten the paralysis phase by focusing on moving a part of the body, such as a leg or finger. If the person is able to draw attention to their situation, for example by moaning or grunting (speaking is usually not possible), the partner can react accordingly: Touching the partner or making a loud noise can often end the sleep paralysis .

Guidelines of the German Society for Neurology: Non-restful sleep / sleep disorders. AWMF guidelines register No. 061/024 (status: 31.12.2017)

Online information from the Pschyrembel: www.pschyrembel.de (as of April 18, 2017)

Parasomnias. Patient guide of the German Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine. Online publication (as of October 24, 2011)

Stuck, B. et al .: Sleep disorders in adults and children. Springer Medizin Verlag, Heidelberg 2009

Last content check:29.03.2021
Last change: 29.03.2021