Why can't I move when I wake up? Am I in danger?

Originally Published: December 12, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 7, 2007
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Hello Alice,

I am a little disturbed by something that happens fairly often while I'm sleeping. Multiple times per week, I will awaken to find myself paralyzed. I cannot move at all, however, I know I am awake. After a few minutes of trying to move, I will re-gain my ability to move. I do not suffer from narcolepsy, and I eat a fairly healthy diet. I have no major medical conditions. My doctor says it's perfectly normal, but I can't help but think that it is not normal at all, as I don't know of anyone who suffers from this. I'm quite concerned it's the sign of a greater health trouble.

Dear Reader,

No need to lose any sleep over this — your doctor is right that what you describe is normal and not dangerous. When you're snoozing and you move into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the deepest part of the sleep cycle, your body becomes largely disconnected from your brain — this is why we don't hurt ourselves or our bed-mates during active dreams. Sometimes, the mind disconnects too early or too late from the body, leaving you unable to move voluntarily. This temporary condition is called sleep paralysis, and it usually subsides after a minute or two.

Though sleep paralysis is harmless, it can be terrifying, especially if you don't know what's happening to you. Someone experiencing an episode may have hallucinations, or have the feeling that someone is in the room or sitting on his/her chest. Hearing and smell can also be involved, as can the feeling of floating or flying. Sleep paralysis is also common — so common that many different cultures have their own names and stories associated with the condition:

    Newfoundland An "old hag" with supernatural powers was thought to sit on the sleeper's chest and cause paralysis.

    West Indies
    A "kokma" or ghost baby was thought to jump on the chest of the sleeper and attack his/her throat.

    China
    "Ggui ya" or pressure applied by a ghost was thought to be responsible for paralyzing the sleeper.

Some researchers believe that sleep paralysis could even be responsible for recent reports of late-night alien abductions.

The exact cause of sleep paralysis is unknown. The condition is often linked to the sleep disorder narcolepsy — a condition that causes people to lose control over when they fall asleep — but people who don't have narcolepsy experience episodes as well. Sleep paralysis seems to run in families and is more common in teenagers and people who have panic attacks.

A few things you can do to lessen the chances of encountering sleep paralysis include:

  • exercising at least twice a week
  • going to sleep and waking up at the same times each day
  • getting enough sleep to keep you feeling alert and awake throughout your day
  • reducing or better managing the amount of stress you deal with during the day (check out Alice!'s archive on stress for tips)

If you experience sleep paralysis more than once a week for at least six months, a health care provider or sleep specialist might be able to prescribe medication that can help you regulate your sleep patterns and manage the episodes. Students at Columbia can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment.

In the meantime, perhaps knowing that this is within the range of normal will help you move toward sweeter dreams.

Alice

January 22, 2013

522170
Does anyone know how to stop it? I have a little way to get your body running again but it takes a second so first take short deep breaths sort of like hyperventilating it helps a little.
Does anyone know how to stop it? I have a little way to get your body running again but it takes a second so first take short deep breaths sort of like hyperventilating it helps a little.

January 3, 2013

521078
I was so worried as i have this too.....thought i had a brain tumor or something terrible......i feel at least at slight ease now.....i Hate this keep happening :-( its more at times of stress and...
I was so worried as i have this too.....thought i had a brain tumor or something terrible......i feel at least at slight ease now.....i Hate this keep happening :-( its more at times of stress and when im tired.....so glad its normal thank u!!

December 11, 2012

519978
Thank you so much for this. This has been happening to me for so long but scared to let people know cause I don't want to be seen as a freak but now I know better. Thank you
Thank you so much for this. This has been happening to me for so long but scared to let people know cause I don't want to be seen as a freak but now I know better. Thank you

December 6, 2012

519728
When you are having sleep paralysis just relax and just try to move you thumbs and toes to activate your body back to your brain..I know Its gonna be hard but keep trying and it actually works...This...
When you are having sleep paralysis just relax and just try to move you thumbs and toes to activate your body back to your brain..I know Its gonna be hard but keep trying and it actually works...This was taught to me by my father..so good luck and have a sweet dreams ya'l.

December 3, 2007

21362

To the reader:

I am not a doctor but a layman. I take blood pressure pills for high blood pressure but I have to monitor my blood pressure to make sure it doesn't get too low. When my blood...

To the reader:

I am not a doctor but a layman. I take blood pressure pills for high blood pressure but I have to monitor my blood pressure to make sure it doesn't get too low. When my blood pressure is kind of low I get that same reaction as you do of being paralyzed when I wake up. It's like being stuck in a bad place. The feeling is very eery.

September 21, 2007

21329
I experience the same thing. I feel like I am awake and am aware of my surroundings but cannot open my eyes or move. It is a terrifying feeling. I also feel as if someone is touching me. It...
I experience the same thing. I feel like I am awake and am aware of my surroundings but cannot open my eyes or move. It is a terrifying feeling. I also feel as if someone is touching me. It happened to me this morning. My dog was laying next to me and I could feel him, but I could feel "someone" pushing on my neck, I thought I was going crazy. It's good to know there is a name to this condition and I'm not alone.