Can Sleep Paralysis Kill You? (Doctor’s 6 Prevention Tips)

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  • This article has been written by Dr. Darshan Shingala (M.D, MPH) – a qualified and practicing medical doctor – for maximum factual accuracy and reliability.

Sleep paralysis is a medical condition where you are consciously aware but unable to physically move after waking up or just before you fall asleep – this is often accompanied by auditory and/or visual hallucinations and a sense of fear.

But what causes sleep paralysis exactly?

According to scientific literature, sleep paralysis is believed to be caused by dysfunction of the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase – the deepest stage of sleep where the motor neuronal system is inactive, but the brain is hyperactive – and can be triggered by stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety, narcolepsy, or depression [1].

I have personally experienced sleep paralysis many, many times – usually when I have been experiencing some sort of stress, anxiety, or major change in my life – the most common experience being where I felt like I was stuck in quicksand and I couldn’t turn over (typically accompanied by a loud buzzing or screaming in my ears).

Sleep paralysis is very scary, but can it kill you?

Sleep paralysis cannot kill you – despite feeling like you are suffocating or being crushed. However, frequently experiencing sleep paralysis may cause daytime fatigue, anxiety, and depression due to sleep disruption and fear of further sleep paralysis experiences.

In the rest of this article, I have used my professional knowledge as a medical doctor combined with my access to scientific journals to explain more about sleep paralysis and give you 6 actionable ways to prevent sleep paralysis from occurring again.

But of course, you should consult with your own doctor for the best treatment in your case.

Related: a comfortable mattress can help stop sleep paralysis – see the top mattresses we have reviewed here.

Why Can’t Sleep Paralysis Kill You?

10 Terrifying Facts about Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis cannot cause death because although it may feel like you are in physical pain or extreme distress, there is no physical harm occurring to your body.

The episode of sleep paralysis usually lasts from twenty seconds up to a few minutes.

However, these few minutes may feel like waking up from the dead, because you are experiencing your dreams while you are awake, but unable to move or scream.

A few minutes of sleep paralysis are enough to terrify any individual by making them feel caged, trapped, or stuck in their own body.

This episode may or may not be accompanied by auditory, olfactory, tactile, or visual hallucinations [2].

Even though sleep paralysis is a perplexing experience, no deaths have yet been clinically registered [2, 4].

Sleep paralysis may not cause any physical harm, but it may substantially shake the sufferer’s mental state because, during the hallucinations, the mind is alert but you feel frozen in a state of fear.

Hence, even a brief episode of sleep paralysis can trigger severe stress, and eventually lead to an unpleasant state of inner turmoil.

Try these 10 ways to sleep better using lavender.

What are the Causes of Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is caused by a dysfunctional overlap of REM (rapid eye movement) and waking stages of sleep – with stress, anxiety, depression, narcolepsy, and sleep deprivation being common triggers.

Some literature also suggests that in a few rare cases, sleep paralysis sufferers may be genetically predisposed, though such cases can be cured through timely diagnosis, appropriate medical attention, and a proper treatment plan [3].

It has been evidenced that individuals who are addicted to substances; who do not pay attention to their mental health or circadian rhythm; who have symptoms of psychiatric illness; who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder or panic disorder, are at a higher risk of experiencing sleep paralysis [3].

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How to Wake Up from Sleep Paralysis

Most people find sleep paralysis to be scary and undesirable.

So how can you wake yourself up during an episode of sleep paralysis?

There is no consistently reliable technique for waking up from an episode of sleep paralysis – however, research suggests that consciously trying to wiggle your fingers and toes may be enough to wake you up from sleep paralysis [15] – distractions like reverse counting may also help.

You should also keep as calm as possible, resist the urge to panic, pay attention to your breathing pattern, try to remember that what’s happening is just a dream and that the fear will pass.

How to Get Back to Sleep After Waking Up from Sleep Paralysis

In my professional experience, I have observed that patients generally find it difficult to get back to sleep after an episode of sleep paralysis.

They usually describe the incident as exhausting and emotionally overwhelming.

Some patients even report that they wake up crying, and gasping for air.

I typically recommend that those patients drink a glass of water while in a sitting position to stabilize their physiological equilibrium, regain homeostasis, normalize breathing patterns, and alleviate blood pressure to get back to sleep after waking up from sleep paralysis.

I completely understand that getting back to sleep after sleep paralysis can be challenging.

Therefore, based on my medical knowledge, I have listed some of the strategies that may help you to get back to sleep after waking up from sleep paralysis below:

1: Don’t Watch the Clock

If you can’t get back to sleep after waking up from sleep paralysis, try not to keep watching the clock – noticing the time will only intensify the stress of being awake [4].

The increased stress will, in turn, activate the sympathetic nervous system, which means the body will go into fight or flight mode.

Hence, you will be stuck in the vicious loop, and you will not be able to sleep. 

2: Create a Soothing Atmosphere

Secondly, I would suggest that you relax your body, center your thoughts, get into a comfortable position, and create a quiet environment, or play calming music to help calm you down.

Set the room temperature slightly cooler to stimulate circadian rhythm by producing melatonin.

Creating a soothing ambiance should help you relax, and fall asleep shortly [4].

3: Do Something Boring to Clear Your Mind

Another suggestion would be to indulge in any boring activities, such as reading something uninteresting from an undesirable genre, counting numbers in your mind, etc.

This should eventually make you feel drowsy and induce sleep.

In addition to that, I would suggest you write away your worries if you usually get caught up in the whirl of thoughts or concerns about all your pending tasks.

Note down your plans for the upcoming day or prepare a to-do list so that these thoughts will not linger in your mind while you are trying to sleep.

In case of other thoughts or concerns, you may also write them down to get them out of your system, or you could discuss them with someone you trust [15].

4: Get Out of Bed After 15 to 20 Minutes

Finally, if none of the aforementioned suggestions help you to go back to sleep after approximately 15 to 20 minutes, stop trying because it means that your central nervous system is already active.

Therefore, it would be better for you to leave the bedroom and complete an unfinished task, or keep yourself busy so that you are tired the next day and can go to bed early.

Doing so will also help you segregate your working area and sleeping place.

Check out these 10 ways to combat daytime tiredness after being awake at night.

6 Ways to Prevent Sleep Paralysis

There is no definitive therapeutic plan for treating sleep paralysis.

Unfortunately, strategies to prevent, manage, or cope with sleep paralysis are generally anecdotal.

However, improving sleep hygiene, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, inculcating a habit of regular exercise and stress management can substantially help to scale down the likelihood of sleep paralysis.

I have listed below a few effective tips and techniques that can help to prevent sleep paralysis:

1: Maintain Good Sleep Hygiene

I would advise you to adhere to good sleep hygiene practices and follow a consistent sleeping routine – even on weekends and vacations.

Maintaining a sleep routine by getting up and going to bed at roughly the same time daily will provide a structure to your circadian rhythm, regulate sleep hormones, and program your body to sleep better [4].

I would also suggest that you sleep at least six to eight hours a night, and avoid sleeping on your back or your stomach, to minimize the risk of sleep paralysis. 

Make sure to create a peaceful sleeping atmosphere with a suitable mattress, comfortable bedding, and appropriate sleepwear.

Also make sure you regulate the lighting, noise, and temperature of the room to help you fall asleep easily and stay asleep until the next morning.

I would ask you to consider creating boundaries with your pets or partner if you share your bedroom with them, and they knowingly or unknowingly tend to disturb your sleep at night.

Check out my guide to sleeping better with your partner here.

2: Abstain from Nervous System Stimulants

The effects of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine can last for several hours in the human body, and interfere with the sleep/wake cycle.

Coffee can instantly induce alertness, and alcohol-infused drinks – although they may have a sedative effect for a few hours following consumption – eventually also tend to stimulate the central nervous system, induce stress, hinder sleep, and instigate the likelihood of sleep paralysis [5].

Therefore, indulging in caffeinated beverages and alcoholic drinks regularly before bedtime may not only cause difficulty initiating sleep, and frequent nocturnal awakenings, but may also be a reason for sleep paralysis [6].

I would advise you to cut down on your caffeine intake, especially during the evening hours, because of its interference with the circadian rhythm, and its prevention of deep sleep.

I would suggest you replace your evening coffee, cola, energy drink, or tea with a warm herbal infusion [7] – such as chamomile tea.

Scientific studies have found that individuals who smoke typically take longer to fall asleep and wake up more frequently during the night [6, 7] – learn more about how nicotine affects sleep here.

Therefore, it is also suggested that you stay away from nicotine-containing products, as they may interrupt the sleeping pattern, and lower the quality of sleep.

It is also important to note that all these stimulants can interact with your ongoing prescription medications, and may lead to adverse outcomes.

Besides alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine-containing products, it has been evidenced that snacking before going to bed, or eating a late-night dinner, can trigger the digestive system, and keep you awake.

If you are diagnosed with any cardiovascular disease or digestive tract ailment, it is even more important to avoid eating a greasy meal at least two hours before your regular bedtime, since these can aggravate your symptoms, cause sleeplessness, and may even trigger sleep paralysis [4].

I would suggest you establish good sleep hygiene, avoid taking neuronal stimulants near to your bedtime, and eat a reasonable amount of complex carbohydrates and proteins for your dinner.

Diet specialists, nutritionists, and sleep experts often recommend that eating in moderation no less than an hour before going to sleep is good for overall health, and peaceful sleep.

Here are 15 ways to help you get to sleep after drinking coffee too late.

3: Consider Routine Workouts to Reduce Stress

Routine mild to moderate exercise can help you to stay lean and may also help prevent sleep disturbances – including sleep paralysis [8].

However, vigorous workouts close to your regular bedtime can have a stimulating effect on your body.

Hence, it is crucial to understand how the timing, intensity, and duration of your exercise can influence your sleeping schedule.

In my opinion, you must not over-train, or engage in high-intensity training sessions immediately before your bedtime.

Instead, I would recommend that you schedule your exercise for at least three hours before your bedtime.

Check out these 10 strategies for getting to sleep after exercising before bed.

4: Reduce Screen Exposure 2-3 Hours Before Bedtime

It is well known that the blue light emitted from electronic devices like televisions, computers, mobile phones, or any other digital screen, can interrupt our circadian rhythm, disturb the synthesis of sleep hormones, and induce stress.

In addition to the stress and hormonal changes, the content you are consuming may make you think about the various topics, and increase mental alertness [10].

This sequence of non-physiological changes can cause sleep paralysis [10, 11].

Hence, I would suggest you do not indulge in any digital activities for at least two to three hours before your bedtime so that you can improve the quality of sleep, and reduce the probability of experiencing sleep paralysis.

Find out how kiwi can help you sleep better here.

5: Practice Yoga or Meditation Before Bed

Soothing Sleep Music to Reduce the Risk of Sleep Paralysis and Insomnia

Practice yoga or meditation before bedtime to calm your aura, center your thoughts, and balance your inner chaos.

It is believed that a few minutes of meditative self-reflection practice can help us to connect with our unconscious minds, and help manage sleep paralysis [12].

There are several relaxation therapies and stress management techniques that may help you calm your mind before going to sleep.

Such methodologies include biofeedback, deep breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, and visual meditation [13].

Listen to the meditation embedded above with earphones before going to bed because it’s specifically designed to prevent sleep paralysis – you can also try listening to it if you wake up from sleep paralysis so that you can calm down and get back to sleep.

Here are 6 ways to sleep better if you’re taking Adderall.

6: Consult a Board-Certified Sleep Expert

If sleep paralysis occurs on a regular basis, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you consult a board-certified sleep expert to get a detailed sleep analysis.

Sleep study – or polysomnography – is a thorough test that is prescribed to diagnose sleep-related disorders [14].

This extensive examination tracks records of brain waves, blood oxygen levels, pulse rate, heart rate, and breathing pattern – it also includes studying the movement of the eyes and extremities while the patient is asleep.

This test will assist the sleep expert in understanding the causative mechanism and preparing a tailored therapeutic plan for managing sleep paralysis.

You may also consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy, as it helps to order thoughts, and identifies the root cause.

This therapy can structurally assist you with identifying and replacing stressful thoughts, and help you implement behavioral changes to abate symptoms of anxiety and depression that source or exacerbate the sleeping disorder [15].

Combinations of the aforementioned techniques have demonstrated their effectiveness for a broad range of sleeping conditions among my patients.

Try these 7 tips for sleeping more soundly when taking Cymbalta.

Conclusion: Sleep Paralysis Isn’t Physically Harmful

Sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience, but it is momentary, and not life-threatening.

A calm mind, an organized lifestyle, and healthy sleep hygiene can help you prevent recurring sleep paralysis.

Implementing a sleeping schedule, reducing intake of stimulants, practicing meditation, managing your mental health status, and regular exercise may help you to better cope with sleep paralysis [9, 10, 11].

Avoid the consumption of alcohol and caffeinated beverages near your bedtime, because of the way they interfere with the circadian rhythm [6].

Also, it is strongly recommended that you do not engage in high-intensity training sessions immediately before your bedtime, or consume digital content for at least two hours prior to your bedtime [10].

While you are experiencing sleep paralysis, try to stay calm, recognize that it is a dream, take deep breaths, center your mind, and remember, this, too, shall pass.

Try persistently to wiggle your fingers or toes to regain mobility during sleep paralysis.

After the episode, drink a glass of water while in a sitting position to stabilize your physiological equilibrium, regain homeostasis, normalize breathing patterns, and lower your blood pressure.

If you cannot fall back to sleep afterwards, try not to panic, and try counting numbers, listening to soothing music, or doing something boring to induce sleep.

Essentially, anything that can help to optimize your sleeping pattern and minimize stress can assist in preventing and managing sleep paralysis [4].

For instance, merely ensuring a peaceful sleeping atmosphere with a suitable mattress, comfortable bedding, appropriate sleepwear, and controlled lighting, noise and temperature can save you from experiencing sleep paralysis.

If you have frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, you must consult a board-certified sleep specialist to identify the underlying cause, find causative risk factors, and eliminate them.

Related: sleep more soundly in these luxury silk bed sheets I have reviewed.


References

1: Farooq M, Anjum F. Sleep Paralysis. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; September 9, 2021.

2: Olunu E, Kimo R, Onigbinde EO, et al. Sleep Paralysis, a Medical Condition with a Diverse Cultural Interpretation [published correction appears in Int J Appl Basic Med Res. 2018 Oct-Dec;8(4):272]. Int J Appl Basic Med Res. 2018;8(3):137-142. doi:10.4103/ijabmr.IJABMR_19_18

3: Sharpless BA. A clinician’s guide to recurrent isolated sleep paralysis. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016;12:1761-1767. Published 2016 Jul 19. doi:10.2147/NDT.S100307

4: Denis D. Relationships between sleep paralysis and sleep quality: current insights. Nat Sci Sleep. 2018;10:355-367. Published 2018 Nov 2. doi:10.2147/NSS.S158600

5: Denis D, French CC, Gregory AM. A systematic review of variables associated with sleep paralysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2018;38:141-157. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2017.05.005

6: Clark I, Landolt HP. Coffee, caffeine, and sleep: A systematic review of epidemiological studies and randomized controlled trials. Sleep Med Rev. 2017;31:70-78. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2016.01.006

7: Hishikawa Y, Shimizu T. Physiology of REM sleep, cataplexy, and sleep paralysis. Adv Neurol. 1995;67:245-271.

8: Banno M, Harada Y, Taniguchi M, et al. Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PeerJ. 2018;6:e5172. Published 2018 Jul 11. doi:10.7717/peerj.5172

9: Dolezal BA, Neufeld EV, Boland DM, Martin JL, Cooper CB. Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review [published correction appears in Adv Prev Med. 2017;2017:5979510]. Adv Prev Med. 2017;2017:1364387. doi:10.1155/2017/1364387

10: Carter B, Rees P, Hale L, Bhattacharjee D, Paradkar MS. Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(12):1202-1208. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.2341

11: Fuller C, Lehman E, Hicks S, Novick MB. Bedtime Use of Technology and Associated Sleep Problems in Children. Glob Pediatr Health. 2017;4:2333794X17736972. Published 2017 Oct 27. doi:10.1177/2333794X17736972

12: Mishra SK, Singh P, Bunch SJ, Zhang R. The therapeutic value of yoga in neurological disorders. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012;15(4):247-254. doi:10.4103/0972-2327.104328

13: Jalal B, Moruzzi L, Zangrandi A, et al. Meditation-Relaxation (MR Therapy) for Sleep Paralysis: A Pilot Study in Patients With Narcolepsy. Front Neurol. 2020;11:922. Published 2020 Aug 12. doi:10.3389/fneur.2020.00922

14: Sharpless BA, Barber JP. Lifetime prevalence rates of sleep paralysis: a systematic review. Sleep Med Rev. 2011;15(5):311-315. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2011.01.007

15: Sharpless BA, Kliková M. Clinical features of isolated sleep paralysis. Sleep Med. 2019;58:102-106. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2019.03.007

Medical Disclaimer

No part of this website offers medical advice – consult with a qualified professional for the best guidance and treatment in your case.

Image Attribution and Licensing

Main image: ‘Sleep Paralysis Horror Scene with Demon in the Bed’ by ddraw – (used with permission and commercially licensed through Envato Elements).