It’s Sleeptember, an event organised by the Sleep Council which runs throughout September and helps promote the benefits of better sleep.

At Rest Assured, we’re always looking at ways to help people achieve a better night’s sleep. After all, we’ve been making beds since 1898, so we know how important good rest is to physical and mental well-being.

We’ve looked at the causes of sleep deprivation. We’ve also offered quirky advice to help you relax and top tips for sleeping in hot conditions.

In this post, we’re investigating sleep paralysis: what causes it, how it can be prevented, and some of the mysterious folklore behind this often quite scary phenomenon.

As ever, we can only offer information and broad advice. If sleep paralysis is causing you great disturbance on a regular basis, we strongly advise consulting your GP.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis occurs when you’re waking-up or falling-asleep, and is the inability to speak and/or move for a short period of time, usually a few seconds or minutes.

During this period of time you’ll be aware of your surroundings, but you won’t be able to respond to them.

However, each person can experience slightly different episodes. Some may find their breathing restricted. Others may hallucinate and believe another presence – usually harmful – is in the room, even when it’s not.

The key thing to remember is that it will pass and to not panic. For those who have experienced sleep paralysis multiple times will understand that it isn’t permanent. For those new to it, it can be particularly intense and frightening.

What causes sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis occurs when the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep occurs even though you’re awake. It’s when this stage of sleep – where dreams occur and your brain is at its most active – crosses the border into your conscious state of mind.

A theory is that sleep paralysis – and thus the paralysis of your body movements - occurs during this stage to prevent you from acting out your dreams. In a sense, it’s a self-preservative state of being.

There are no definitive reasons why sleep paralysis happens. However, it could be caused by: lack of sleep, irregular sleeping patterns, narcolepsy, genetics or sleeping on your back.

How often does sleep paralysis occur?

This varies from person to person, though it’s most common in teenagers and young adults, possibly – but not definitely - as a result of lifestyle choices.

For some, it may just happen once or twice over an entire lifetime. For others, it may occur monthly, weekly, or even daily. If you suffer from sleep paralysis regularly and it’s disrupting your day-to-day living, we strongly advise you consult a doctor.

How to treat sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis can generally be treated by maintaining good sleeping habits, such as:

  • Creating a sleeping environment that’s comfortable and suited to your personal needs
  • Prioritising sleep by maintaining a regular bedtime
  • Avoiding consuming substances disruptive to sleep before going to bed, such as coffee, alcohol and big meals

If sleep paralysis persists, consult your GP.

Sleep paralysis folklores

Because sleep paralysis can induce often quite scary hallucinations it’s been the source of folklore in the past.

Different cultures have interpreted the nature of sleep paralysis in vastly different ways. Artist Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare is widely regarded as an interpretation of sleep paralysis, featuring a prostate person with a demon sitting on her chest.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries sleep paralysis was regarded as a result of witchcraft – some even, reportedly, used sleep paralysis as evidence during the witch trials!

Moving into the modern era, studies of alien abductions and supernatural experiences were closely associated with sleep, with accounts bearing all the hallmarks of sleep paralysis.

Another popular theory of yesteryear was that sleep paralysis was actually the visit from Old Hag: where the person experiencing the phenomenon is unable to move and feels the weight of a person or animal sitting on their chest.