Have you ever had the truly horrific experience of waking up in your own bed and realizing that you are paralyzed? You may have simply found yourself overwhelmed with an eerie sense of foreboding or panic or else experienced a more classic scenario, which goes something like this…

You know that there is an intruder in the room and then the intruder attacks—pressing on and restraining you, suffocating you. You try to scream but you can’t utter a sound or move. And the intruder is not even a human being! It’s a demon, an outer-space alien or some other monstrous creature! Yet, however surreal this experience is, you are certain, at least for the first few moments in, that you are awake. You may struggle against the paralysis to wake yourself up out of what you realize is a very vivid nightmare. Then, in the midst of the horror and panic, you actually do wake to find yourself quite safe and sound.

About 8% of the general population will experience this phenomenon, called sleep paralysis, at least once, and some will experience it periodically–even several times a week. Some victims also truly believe that sleep paralysis episodes aren’t mere nightmares but veritable supernatural or alien attacks. But if you have such recurrent nightmares or know someone who does, be assured that you are not being attacked and you’re not going crazy. And if you ever have such a nightmare for the very first time, this article could help you recognize what is happening and get a handle on it.


Sleep paralysis historically has been attributed to supernatural bugaboos—demons, witches and ghosts and, in modern times, space aliens. But rather than being a supernatural or space-age horror, sleep paralysis is a REM-sleep glitch in which certain aspects of REM sleep continue after you have, in part, emerged from sleep. In this state, you are both awake and asleep, dreaming and hallucinating, explained Brian Sharpless, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and director of the psychology clinic at Washington State University in Pullman. You are paralyzed because the brain chemistry that keeps your body immobile so that it won’t act out dreams is still in full force. Other signature aspects of sleep paralysis—intense fear or panic and the creepy sense of being watched or attacked, restrained or suffocated by a gruesome intruder—also can be chalked up to neurochemical interactions in the brain.


Although sleep paralysis has been discussed by physicians since at least the time of ancient Rome, there’s no clear-cut treatment for it. Findings from a recent study by Dr. Sharpless, however, may help people with periodic sleep paralysis get relief.

Because sleep paralysis is common in college students (occurring at least once in nearly 30% of them), Dr. Sharpless, who is a coauthor of the upcoming book Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives, conducted his study in this population group. The study, in part, investigated how people try to disrupt or prevent sleep paralysis episodes and how successful their tactics are.

A total of 156 participants with sleep paralysis were included in the study. They were identified out of a much larger group of would-be participants using an evaluation called the Fearful Isolated Sleep Paralysis Interview, which assesses the frequency of sleep paralysis episodes, the level of fear and distress they evoke and hallucinations that occur during episodes. The Fearful Isolated Sleep Paralysis Interview also includes questions that help doctors identify whether a medical condition, such as narcolepsy, or a psychiatric problem, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, is causing the sleep paralysis and even if drug use is the culprit. (None of the study participants fell into these categories.) The participants also were questioned about whether and how they disrupted or prevented their sleep paralysis episodes.

The results. Although most participants (70%) who had had sleep paralysis said they had tried to disrupt episodes by using various tactics to force themselves awake, only half of them felt that they had been successful. The most common tactic was to try to move, which worked for some and not for others but may be worth a try. Dr. Sharpless suggests that, rather than struggling to move arms or legs, attempt to simply twitch a finger or toe during a sleep paralysis episode. This might be enough to jog yourself out of the episode and into fully waking consciousness.

One of the less used but more successful tactics was to simply stay calm, not give into participating in the narrative of the dream, and remind yourself that the experience is just a dream. Not participating in the nightmare can have the result of simply waking up out of it.

Of course, it would be better to prevent sleep paralysis from occurring at all! Among the study participants with periodic sleep paralysis who had tried ways to prevent it, most (nearly 80%) felt they were generally successful at keeping episodes at bay. Based on feedback from these folks and previous research by himself and others, Dr. Sharpless offered these suggestions for discouraging sleep paralysis episodes…

• Avoid alcohol and coffee several hours before bedtime. These substances affect the types of sleep you have and may make you more likely to have an episode of sleep paralysis when you wake.

• Avoid sleeping on your back or stomach. Studies show that these postures are more likely to encourage the feeling of suffocation and chest pressure during a sleep paralysis episode.

• Keep a regular sleep schedule and maintain a routine that encourages healthy sleep. This means going to bed at the same time every evening and turning off the cares of the day as well as the computer, television and other overstimulating diversions at least a half hour before you turn in.

• Avoid becoming overtired before deciding to hit the sack and also avoid oversleeping.

• Practice progressive relaxation before going to sleep and whenever you can throughout the day.

• Get exercise on most days. It can help you sleep more soundly at night.


Although sleep paralysis more commonly occurs in people with narcolepsy or epilepsy and in people with stress and anxiety disorders—or simply in people under stress—it can also occur in average, healthy people. If sleep paralysis is occurring frequently and causing emotional distress and/or daytime fatigue, Dr. Sharpless recommends that you consult a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of sleep disorders.