Sleep paralysis

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Harriet Bradley

, Livi Medical Director

Medically reviewed

Sleep paralysis is when you wake up from sleep but can’t move or speak. It can also happen when you’re falling asleep. An episode of sleep paralysis can be scary, but it usually only lasts a few minutes and doesn’t cause long-term problems.

What is sleep paralysis?

An episode of sleep paralysis is when you’re fully conscious but cannot move or speak when you’re going to sleep or waking up. Once it’s over, you can move and talk like normal, but you might feel upset and worried about what’s happened. 

Some people hallucinate during sleep paralysis and see things that aren’t there. These are often called sleep paralysis demons or sleep demons and can be frightening to experience.

Sleep paralysis is a parasomnia, the name given to a group of conditions of unwanted behaviour during sleep. Other parasomnias include talking in your sleep and sleepwalking.

What are the symptoms of sleep paralysis?

average episode lasts for 6 or 7 minutes. 

While it’s happening, you may feel: 

  • Awake, but you can’t move, speak or open your eyes

  • Like there’s someone in your room

  • As if something is on you, weighing you down

  • Scared

Sleep paralysis is relatively common, but most people only get it once or twice in their life. 


What causes sleep paralysis?

When you’re in the deepest stage of sleep, called REM sleep, your muscles get very relaxed and temporarily paralysed – a state called atonia. 

Atonia is usually helpful as it stops us from moving our bodies as we dream. Sleep paralysis is when the muscle relaxation part of REM sleep happens, but your brain is active and it feels like you’re awake. It’s a mixed state of consciousness that you don’t have control over.

You might be more likely to experience sleep paralysis if you have:

  • Insomnia

  • An unusual sleeping routine because of jet lag or shift work

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Anxiety

  • Panic disorder

  • Narcolepsy

  • Sleep apnoea

  • A family history of sleep paralysis

Stress doesn’t cause sleep paralysis, but because it can affect your sleeping patterns, you might be more likely to experience it if you’re under pressure at work or feeling stressed in general.

Sleep paralysis demons happen during this same combination of brain activity, where sleep overlaps with wakefulness.

What is a sleep paralysis demon?

A sleep paralysis demon is a hallucination caused by your brain misinterpreting something you can see, hear or feel and turning it into something that seems scary. You might feel trapped or like the sleep demon could hurt you, but this will stop when you wake up properly.

Some people experience sleep paralysis demons with sleep paralysis, but they can also happen separately, either when you’re waking up or falling asleep.  

How to stop sleep paralysis

You don’t have control over sleep paralysis while it’s happening, but there are things you can do to make it less likely:

  • Get enough sleep – 7 to 9 hours a day is ideal

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and waking up time

  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine

  • Exercise regularly, but keep activities calm in the four hours before you go to bed

  • Avoid eating too much, smoking or drinking before you go to bed

  • Don’t drink caffeine later in the day

  • Sleep on your side or your front – sleep paralysis is more likely to happen if you’re on your back

Healthy sleep habits to prevent sleep paralysis

Healthy sleep habits involve creating a restful environment to sleep in and a calming bedtime routine to help you wind down.

  • Make your bedroom a calm, quiet place, with curtains that are thick enough to keep it dark

  • Avoid watching the news or anything too stimulating for your brain before bedtime

  • Turn off screens, especially blue light screens like smartphones and tablets, a couple of hours before you go to bed

  • Wind down by having a bath or reading a book

How to treat sleep paralysis

If you have severe sleep paralysis, a GP might prescribe a low dose of a medicine used to treat depression

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be helpful for some people. This is a type of talking therapy that works by changing your thought patterns. CBT can help you reframe things in your mind that might disrupt your sleep. It can also give you ways to cope with sleep paralysis demons. 

When should I seek help?

If you’ve had sleep paralysis more than a couple of times and you feel worried about going to sleep, talk to a GP. 

If you’re having episodes of sleep paralysis often, you might have an underlying condition that needs treatment. 

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Harriet Bradley, Livi Medical Director