17 Ways to Escape & Prevent Sleep Paralysis
If you're reading this, you've probably had sleep paralysis. You probably already know that each night, during REM sleep, our body shuts down into "atonia" (paralysis), which helpfully prevents us from acting out our dreams. But you wake up while this is happening, probably to see a realistic impression of your sleeping environment, and you might be one of the 80% who see, hear, feel or sense an "intruder" in their room.
During the past two years, I've been involved in sleep paralysis studies, and spent lockdown remotely mentoring people from around the world, to try to get to the bottom of why they were having sleep paralysis. I learned a lot from these conversations, and because we don't need Halloween month to be any scarier than it is (do we?), I'd like to share some tips on preventing, stopping and managing sleep paralysis.
How to escape sleep paralysis (while it's happening)
The most common advice is to try to move a pinky finger or baby toe.
A little known tip is to also try moving your tongue. (See #5 for advice on not trying to move at all.)
#1 and #2 will likely wake you up, but you can also fall asleep into a dream by closing your eyes and thinking of something that makes you happy.
You can also escape into a lucid dream or an out-of-body experience, where you'll have a much better chance of a pleasant experience. You can do this either by falling asleep first, or directly, using induction techniques. There are tons available in books, videos and on the Internet, and it's best to experiment to find the one that works best for you (examples are here, here and here).
You can also try this four-step therapy developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge (which advises against trying to move).
How to prevent sleep paralysis from happening in the first place
Once you wake up from sleep paralysis, don't fall back to sleep immediately. Do something that makes you feel happy or cozy, like reading an uplifting novel or spending time with a loved one (including a pet).
Sharing a room with a person or pet can be helpful, as they might notice signs of distress and wake you up.
Make sure you go to bed and wake up around the same time, and get enough sleep. If you nap, see if your situation improves by only sleeping at night.
Try not to sleep on your back. In Brazil, one of the well-known forms of the sleep paralysis intruder is the pisadera, generally described as an old woman with long fingernails who tramples the chest of those who sleep on their backs with a full stomach. In response is the tradition of training children to not sleep on their backs. I've also heard that sewing an object into the back of your pajama top can prevent you from sleeping on your back.
Change your sleeping environment. Try sleeping in another room (or building if you can), or move your furniture around. I'm not sure what the logic is behind this; I've heard explanations from electrical problems, to hauntings, to certain habits tied to that particular location (such as caffeine consumption). All I know is that I've heard tons of people swear this worked for them. Why not ask a trusted friend if you can have a sleepover, and see if you still get sleep paralysis?
Similarly, check the levels of dust in your room. Sleep with a window open if its safe, as dust or allergies might affect the way you breathe at night.
Sleep paralysis often occurs due to stress, anxiety, excitement or lack of sleep, so try to eliminate the cause(s) and see if that helps. For example, if the culprit is caffeine, try switching to a non-caffeinated drink, such as rooibos tea, and take tyrosine to mitigate caffeine withdrawal.
Don't overdo it at the gym, as this can lead to exhaustion, which can make you want to sleep on your back.
Although sleep paralysis often happens to healthy people as a result of the above causes, it can also occur as a symptom of an underlying condition, such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea, diabetes, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis. This quiz from the London Sleep Centre can assess whether you might have a sleep disorder, but make sure you also see a doctor who can help to clarify the origin for you. Once any underlying condition is treated, your sleep paralysis should stop. Sleep technician and narcoleptic Brenda A. Moore (I highly recommend her book) found that her son's narcolepsy was caused by his facial structure, such as a small jaw, large tonsils and tongue position, which he then had surgery for.
Some medications can cause sleep paralysis. If you think this might be the case, talk to your doctor.
A change in diet can help depending on what causes your sleep paralysis. For example, there is evidence that a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet improves sleepiness in patients with narcolepsy. The ketogenic diet was developed for epileptics, who can also suffer from sleep paralysis, so there may be a connection there. I recently read a claim that going gluten free stopped one experiencer's sleep paralysis completely. Brenda A. Moore also discusses the role of diet, with sleep deprivation from sleep apnea or narcolepsy leading to cravings for unhealthy foods, which could exacerbate diabetes - all connected to sleep paralysis.
Recovery from drug and alcohol use can cause sleep paralysis while your body attempts to correct itself. This is temporary, but if it concerns you, see your doctor who may give you advice on managing it.
How to manage sleep paralysis
Some people never get to the root cause of their sleep paralysis (that's why a mixture of support and research is so important). Or, they don't want it to stop because, as mentioned above, they might use it as a springboard into a lucid dream or an out-of-body experience.
Then there are people who have had so many episodes of sleep paralysis that it stops being scary for them. It might be because the "intruders" no longer have the same impact, or that they've learned behaviours that cause the figures to either disappear or lose their threatening vibe. Imagining yourself radiating happiness or love seems to do the trick.
While you work out what to do, speaking to other experiencers is highly recommended. It can be cathartic, and a reminder that you're not alone. Also, sometimes it's nice to just have a rant! This Facebook group and this Reddit community contain a wealth of ideas, information and sympathetic ears.
I hope that there was something useful here. If you take the above steps, you should be able to stop your sleep paralysis in its tracks (if you want to, that is). Get in touch in the comments or private message me if you have questions or think of something else that could be added to this list.
Adler, S. R. 2011. Sleep paralysis: Night-mares, nocebos, and the mind-body connection [Kindle version]. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press. Available at: www.amazon.co.uk/sleep-paralysis-night-mares-connection-anthropology-ebook/dp/B0051NXHEM
Akintomide, GS and Rickards, H. Narcolepsy: a review. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat, 2011;7:507-518
Denis, D., French, C., Rowe, R., Zavos, H. M. S., Nolan, P. M., Parsons, M. J. and Gregory, A. M. 2015. A twin and molecular genetics study of sleep paralysis and associated factors. Journal of Sleep Research, 24(4), pp. 438-446
De Sa, J. F. R and Mota-Rolim, S. A. 2016. Sleep paralysis in Brazilian folklore and other cultures: a brief review. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1294
Garma, L and Marchand, F. Non-pharmacological approaches to the treatment of narcolepsy. Sleep. 1994;17:S97-S102
Hufford, D. J. 1982. The Terror that Comes in the Night [Kindle version]. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press. Available at: www.amazon.co.uk/terror-comes-night-experience-centered-experience-centred-ebook/dp/B00X58MYS0 [Accessed 26 November 2018].
Husain, AM et al. Diet therapy for narcolepsy. Neurology. 2004;62:2300-2302
Moore, Brenda A. 2017. 40 Winks. A narcoleptic’s journey through sleep, dreams and spirituality. 40 Winks Press.
Sandyk, R. 1997. Resolution of sleep paralysis by weak electromagnetic fields in a patient with multiple sclerosis. pp. 145-157. http.doi.org/10.3109/00207459709000634