Sleep paralysis

Meir H. Kryger, MD, Art Editor and Isabella Siegel, Guest Art Editor wrote for Sleep Health 3 (2017):

“…(Henry) Fuseli’s close relationships and interactions with scientists may have caused him to incorporate medical phenomena into his works. In 1969, Dr Jerome Schneck compared the painting to sleep paralysis, an experience of anxiety-provoking loss of muscle tone, caused by the REM state in the brain throughout which the individual is conscious enough to register and remember the entire event. Such events are often associated with frightening hypnagogic hallucinations. These hallucinations sometimes consist of creatures sitting upon the individual’s chest, increasing the feeling of suffocation. Although such visions are frightening, they are now understood, diagnosable, and treatable. The 18th-century definition of nightmare, in fact, included the description of a hallucination of “someone or something sitting on the chest.” Sleep paralysis as we know it today was separated from nightmares more than a century later by SW Mitchell, who referred to them as “night palseys.”The dark undertones of mental instability associated with hallucinations, however benign as those associated with sleep paralysis, add to a darker layer of the painting…”


“Sleep paralysis is when you cannot move or speak as you are waking up or falling asleep. It can be scary but it’s harmless and most people will only get it once or twice in their life.

During sleep paralysis you may feel:

• awake but cannot move, speak or open your eyes

• like someone is in your room

• like something is pushing you down

• frightened

These feelings can last up to several minutes.

Sleep paralysis happens when you cannot move your muscles as you are waking up or falling asleep. This is because you are in sleep mode but your brain is active.

It’s not clear why sleep paralysis can happen but it has been linked with:

• insomnia

• disrupted sleeping patterns – for example, because of shift work or jet lag

• narcolepsy – a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep

• post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

• general anxiety disorder

• panic disorder

• a family history of sleep paralysis

Things you can do to help prevent sleep paralysis


  • try to regularly get 6 to 8 hours of sleep a day
  • go to bed at roughly the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning
  • get regular exercise, but not in the 4 hours before going to bed


  • do not eat a big meal, smoke, or drink alcohol or caffeine shortly before going to bed
  • do not sleep on your back – this can make sleep paralysis more likely to happen

Non-urgent advice:

See a GP if:

You often have sleep paralysis and you feel:

• very anxious or scared to go to sleep

• tired all the time due to lack of sleep

A GP may be able to treat an underlying condition that could be triggering sleep paralysis such as insomnia or post-traumatic stress disorder.

If this does not help they might refer you to a doctor who specialises in sleep conditions.

You might be given medicine usually used to treat depression. Taking this type of medicine at a lower dose can also help with sleep paralysis.

You might also be referred for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).”

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