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How Do You Get Sleep Paralysis?

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Updated February 18, 2014

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Question: How Do You Get Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is generally not an enjoyable experience. Most people describe the symptoms as unpleasant, and until the cause is understood it can be scary to endure. How do you get sleep paralysis and how can you avoid it? There may be some factors that are beyond your control, but some behaviors may trigger an episode in the right situation. By learning how these causes lead to sleep paralysis, you may be better able to avoid it.
Answer:

Sleep paralysis is incredibly common and perhaps 1 in 4 people will experience it unintentionally. As it is simply an extension of the dream state (called REM), it is harmless. It is typically not something people seek to repeat once they experience it, however. You may even wish to learn how to get sleep paralysis so that you can avoid those triggers.

First, consider the factors that are beyond your control. It is often reported as occurring in families, but it is so common that a family history may not be particularly informative. It also seems to happen more often in those with an underlying psychiatric condition like anxiety and depression. Again, these conditions are relatively common, so this may not be meaningful.

For the most part, the triggers you can control relate to disruptions of the timing or quality of sleep. Consider these possibilities:

  • Sleep deprivation and stress can incite sleep paralysis.

  • People who do shift work, probably due to schedule disruption, are more likely to experience it.

  • In a controlled environment (such as a sleep study), it is possible to trigger sleep paralysis by interrupting REM sleep.

  • Sleep paralysis is more often reported when people sleep on their backs.

  • It is also more likely to occur while falling asleep at night.

  • The use of alcohol or drugs has been reported to cause sleep paralysis, but this likely relates to disruption of sleep rather than some other effect.

Therefore, you can avoid episodes of sleep paralysis by ensuring that you get a sufficient quantity and quality of sleep. You will also feel better in general when you get better rest. If you wish to share your experiences of sleep paralysis or read about those of others, join the discussion.

Sources:

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." ExpertConsult, 5th edition, 2011.

McCarty, DE et al. "A case of sleep paralysis with hypnopompic hallucinations." Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2009;5(1):83-84.

Takeuchi, T et al. "Isolated sleep paralysis elicited by sleep interruption." Sleep. 1992;15:217-225.

Takeuchi, T et al. "Factors related to the occurrence of isolated sleep paralysis elicited during a multiphasic sleep-wake schedule." Sleep 2002;25:89-96.

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