Old Hags and Sleeping


Since the beginning of the summer, I've been experiencing a strange symptom when I sleep. At first, I thought it was just a bad dream or I was imagining things, but I quickly realized that I was awake. Basically, in the middle of the night I will wake up, yet not really be awake. I cannot move, I cannot speak, I cannot breathe, I cannot do anything except fear that I am dying by the hands of some invisible force that isn't allowing me to move. It feels like it is never ending; in reality it lasts about 30 seconds. Four months and three different beds later, I am still experiencing this at least 4 times a week. I decided to do some research and found that what I am facing is actually rather common and has been present all throughout history.  I have been experiencing sleep paralysis.

One description of sleep paralysis which is quite old and superstitious is that an old hag or witch (hence the term "old Hag Syndrome") sits or rides on her victim, rendering them motionless. This explanation, while outdated, is something many people cling to because of the seemingly supernatural presence that appears while in this state. Some people have hypnagogic and hypnopompic symptoms, claiming to smell strange things and see flashing lights or even hear footsteps in the distance, which leads them to fear a paranormal presence may be the cause of their torment. My own mother told me to start praying before bed because she feared it could be a demon of some sort. 


According to The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, the Greek physician Galen, from the second century, attributed this phenomenon to simple indigestion.

I cannot in my right mind be comforted by an explanation involving the supernatural or indigestion; there must be a better explanation out there! According to Dr. Max Hirshkowitz, director of the Sleep Disorders Center in Houston, when the brain is in the transition state between deep, dreaming sleep (known as REM sleep for its rapid eye movement) and waking up, sleep paralysis may occur if this transition is disrupted. There are five stages of sleep, and REM sleep is the final stage. In Layman's terms, our brain temporarily paralyzes our body on a daily basis during REM sleep because we are in such a deep sleep and there is no need to be moving the major muscles, and sleep paralysis occurs when our REM cycle is disrupted and our brain has not yet had a chance to tell our body that it is alright to move again. 


There are no concrete scientific reasons as to why this may occur, but there are many theories floating around, including the Old Hag theory. One theory is that if you do not uphold a solid sleep routine, i.e. keeping a regular sleep schedule, getting enough sleep every night, keeping fit and reducing stress, you may be susceptible to disrupted sleep. Another idea claims that people with severe anxiety or bipolar disorders may be more likely to experience SP. Sleeping on one's back may also be an influencing factor, says Florence Cardinal in "The Terror of Sleep Paralysis."

My personal remedy to sleep paralysis is willing myself to move until it happens. It's almost become a game to me; the quicker I can will myself to move, the better the outcome. It is interesting and haunting at the same time, knowing how it must feel to be paralyzed, even if for only a moment. I could never compare myself to someone who is permanently paralyzed, but I do feel as though I have a bit of an insight into how easily signals can get jammed up in the brain.

Although nothing is concrete in remedies or even diagnoses, I have to assume that my anxiety and stress play a big role in my sudden change in sleep patterns. I have had problems with anxiety all my life but my sleep paralysis did not start occurring until I was pressured in all aspects of my life: familial, social, medical and personal, and I fear that it will not go away until everything which has been uprooted is firmly planted once again.


I have had sleep paralysis on various occasions as well, although not as frequent as you have. After reading this I thought about all the times were this has occurred and realized that each time it happened I was sleeping on my back. I find it quite odd that the positioning of a person's body during sleep can cause the brain to temporarily paralyze them. But why would the brain do such a thing the sleep cycle is supposed to be sort of a down time for the body so would the brain of all times mess up it's circuitry then. When the sleep paralysis happens to me I always see the image of some strange scary looking figure almost as if a nightmarish sort and it just hovers over my head as I stare blankly trying to move, even unable to blink. The things that come so natural to our body easily interrupted by a simple circuitry problem, kind of hard to believe. I am in good health and always have been yet this still happens to me I believe there has to be more to the situation than that is explained to be possible.

This sounds so terrifying! Reading your blog post reminded me of lucid dreaming. I hadn't heard about this kind of dreaming until a friend from high school had gotten a "Lucid Existence" tattoo on her collarbone. With sleep paralysis, there is apparently a way to turn it into a sort of lucid dreaming, kind of like how you said you try to wake yourself up as fast as you can.


Wow!! Ive never heard of sleep paralysis until your blog post and I would be so scared if I were you! It sounds terrifying to wake up not able to move! I read up a little more on sleep paralysis to see if there are any ways to prevent it and I found similar options that you did, such as not sleeping in the supine position, and keeping a constant sleep schedule. However, I also found something interesting, which suggests theres a genetic component to sleep paralysis. This article states that sleep paralysis could be linked to a genetic disorder in which there is a reduced amount of protein being produced in a section of the brain, harmfully affecting the person and causing sleep paralysis.

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