What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis?

Hallucinations, fear, and an inability to speak or move

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A temporary inability to move or speak, fear, and feeling like you're having an "out of body experience" are symptoms of sleep paralysis. These episodes happen when the transition between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and waking up is disrupted.

Sleep paralysis hallucinations are also common. Different from normal dreaming, you might see, hear, or feel things that are not there. Sensing danger, feeling suffocated, and feeling like you are moving are common sleep paralysis hallucinations.

This article goes over common sleep paralysis symptoms.

Common Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Sleep Paralysis Symptoms

Normally, you have a smooth transitions between the different phases of sleep. But when a transition is interrupted, you might experience sleep paralysis. This can happen either when you first fall asleep or when you're about to wake up.

Symptoms of sleep paralysis include:

  • Inability to move or talk during sleep transitions
  • Trying to cry or scream for help, but having it come out as a soft voice
  • Limited eye movement
  • The sensation of suffocating or breathlessness
  • Feeling like someone is sitting or standing on your chest
  • Out-of-body experience (like you're looking down at yourself)
  • Hallucinations

These symptoms often last for several minutes. They occur when there’s a disruption in the transition from REM sleep, during which your body’s in a state of muscle relaxation, and wakefulness, when your mind is aware. It can leave you temporarily conscious but unable to move.

The level of awareness during sleep paralysis varies. Some people claim they're completely awake and aware of their surroundings. Others describe only partial awareness.

Sleep Paralysis Hallucinations

You may have vivid hallucinations during sleep paralysis. With these, you feel like you're experiencing something that isn't not actually occurring—like you're dreaming while awake. 

The hallucinations linked to sleep paralysis fall into four categories based on which senses they affect:

  • Visual (vision)
  • Auditory (hearing)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Tactile (touch)

Visual Hallucinations

Symptoms of visual hallucinations can include seeing:

  • Flashes
  • Bright colors
  • Lights
  • Presence of a human figure (like a dark figure, shadow, or ghost)

These visions can be intense. Many people report the presence of a human figure, often described as a dark figure, shadow, or ghost. This figure may be standing at the bedside, just at the edge of their vision. Some people report seeing several people in the room.

Sometimes the visual hallucination can be very detailed. For example, some have reported seeing a hand not attached to a body, a gargoyle, bugs, or even a cat.

In other cases, people have vague visions that are blurry or shimmering. They might also have a sense that things in the room are floating.

Auditory Hallucinations

Similarly, the auditory (hearing) hallucinations in sleep paralysis can range from routine to bizarre.

Many people hear various noises, but hearing voices is the most common. The voices may sound like whispers, screams, or laughter.

Almost as often, people report hearing a loud buzzing or static noise. It sounds like a radio that's on but not tuned to a station. Some people hear breathing, footsteps, knocking, or a ringing sound.

People might hear unusual sounds like a horse carriage or growling.

The sounds aren't always specific. They can be hard to describe or remember.

Tactile Hallucinations

Tactile hallucination is the experience of feeling like you're being touched when you're not. It's one of the most common aspects of sleep paralysis. Many people say they feel pressure or contact. It's like something or someone is holding them down.

Some people with sleep paralysis report tingling, numbness, or a vibrating sensation. Others describe a sense of floating, flying, or falling. A few people report feeling chilled or freezing.

Less often, people feel like they're being physically moved or dragged from their beds. Some people report feelings of sexual contact, including physical sensations involving their genital areas.

Other physical experiences that people have reported include: 

  • Sense of getting bitten
  • Bugs crawling on the skin
  • Breathing in the ear
  • An uncontrolled feeling of smiling

Olfactory Hallucinations

The least common hallucination in sleep paralysis is olfactory (sense of smell). Like the other types of hallucinations, the intensity of the smells varies.

Emotional Symptoms

An important and lasting element of sleep paralysis is the emotional component.

For many, the experience of sleep paralysis is a waking nightmare. The dark figure you sense in the room seems to be an evil presence, intent on real harm. The stranger standing over you or sitting on top of you is up to no good and so on.

Most people who experience sleep paralysis describe it as a scary or horrifying experience. This is often related to the hallucination of a stranger’s presence. Some people have a sense of impending doom, or they feel that real harm or death is coming for them.

When you first experience sleep paralysis, it may feel like you had a stroke that resulted in locked-in syndrome. With this, you're conscious but unable to move anything except for your eyes.

Many people describe how real everything seems when it's happening. It's common for people to use the words "weird" and "strange" to describe their experiences.

People might summarize their sleep paralysis as shocking, worrisome, or disgusting. They may say it left them scared, angry, or helpless. Rarely, the experience actually feels comforting to some people. 

If you are worried about the episodes, it may help to know that sleep paralysis does not cause long-term harm and is fairly common. Practicing good sleep habits and getting adequate sleep may help you avoid future incidents.

Summary

Sleep paralysis happens when there's a glitch in your sleep, usually between REM sleep and waking up.

During sleep paralysis, you might hallucinate and think you're seeing, hearing, smelling, or feeling something that's isn't actually there.

It can be a scary feeling, but it's usually not a sign of anything serious.

A Word From Verywell

Sleep paralysis doesn't happen often. Once you understand what it is and why it happens, you might forget about it. If it doesn't go away, consider ways to optimize your sleep. Make sure you're getting enough sleep with a regular sleep pattern. Avoid alcohol in the hours before bedtime. It may also be helpful to try to sleep on your sides as much as possible.

In some cases, you might have to do a sleep study. This could identify other factors that cause sleep fragmentation, like sleep apnea. If you need help, talk to a board-certified sleep doctor about your concerns.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Suni E. Sleep Paralysis: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment. Sleep Foundation.

  2. Waters F, Blom JD, Dang-Vu TT, et al. What is the link between hallucinations, dreams, and hypnagogic–hypnopompic experiencesSchizophr Bull. 2016;42(5):1098-1109. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbw076

Additional Reading

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.