You may have had the experience of feeling like you can’t move during a dream, but if this has happened while you’re in the process of falling asleep or waking up, this experience has a name called ‘sleep paralysis’.
During sleep paralysis, your mind is conscious but you are unable to move your body. You may also think you see or hear things that aren’t really there or experience the sensation of choking or someone sitting on your chest. It can be a frightening experience, but understanding what’s behind it can make it feel less stressful.
As you fall asleep, your body slowly relaxes itself and becomes less responsive to physical signals from your brain. During sleep paralysis, your body begins to go through the relaxation process but your mind is awake enough to notice that is no longer controlling your ability to move or speak.
During REM sleep, your body is relaxed and your muscles are “turned off” so that you don’t physically act out your vivid dreams. Waking up before the last stage of REM sleep is complete can cause you to hyperventilate and hallucinate, as well as make it seem as though you are unable to move your body. Fortunately, sleep paralysis is temporary and typically lasts just a few seconds.
Sleep paralysis is most common in people with narcolepsy, but it can happen to those without it as well. It affects both men and women, and is more likely to happen to teenagers or young adults. It is often genetic, and it is most common in those with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or panic disorder. Lack of sleep or a shifting sleep schedule can also cause sleep paralysis.