Don’t fear the old hag

Imagine waking from a deep sleep to find that you are unable to move your body. Not your arms, not your legs. You are utterly paralyzed. To make matters worse, not only can you not move, but demons begin to approach you. Or possibly aliens begin to take a seemingly scientific interest in you. Either way, your lack of motor control prevents you from defending yourself. You are unable to even shriek in terror.

While this sounds like a scene from a terrible horror movie, the events are symptoms of a real sleep disorder called sleep paralysis. Explained around the world and throughout time by various myths, most famously, the European and Southern U.S. notion of an “old hag” sitting on one’s chest and creating nightmares, sleep paralysis can occur at one of two times during a typical sleep cycle: either while falling asleep or becoming aware during REM sleep. During REM sleep, our brain freezes our muscles to keep us from acting out our dreams. It is possible to become aware during this stage, but not fully awake. Theoretically, we could be left with vivid imagery, but muscles that do not move. Sufferers are essentially trapped between being awake and being asleep.

According to WebMD, there are certain factors that are thought to be linked to visits from the old hag, including lack of sleep, a changing sleep schedule, stress or bipolar disorder, sleeping on one’s back, sleep disturbances such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps, and medication or drug use.

Researchers have been diving into the nature of the phenomenon. A 2013 study by Baland Jalal and Devon Hinton, of the University of San Diego and Harvard Medical School, respectively, focused on the difference in sleep paralysis experiences of sufferers in Egypt and Denmark. The researchers were curious as to how cultural and religious beliefs may affect individuals during sleep paralysis. Egypt is a very religious country. Conversely, Denmark is strongly atheistic.

Jalal and Hinton found that Egyptians felt more fear during such episodes, which they hypothesize contributed to increasing the length, regularity, and severity of the Egyptian experiences. Their Danish counterparts were better able to temper their fear, believing that it was basically their brain playing tricks on them.

While science can give us some basic understanding of the phenomenon, the mythology surrounding the disorder is fascinating. In Scandinavian folklore, it thought to be caused by the mare, a female demon that is carried throughout her village while she is asleep and creates nightmares for others. In the Kashmiri culture, a visit from an invisible creature is a sign that one’s house has not been clean or wrongdoing is taking place.

These beliefs, while interesting, have had tragic outcomes. It is thought that such episodes could explain the nighttime attacks reported by citizens of colonial Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials. Of course, many women were hanged for their supposed witchcraft.

Finally, there are steps one can take to manage the disorder. Start by getting enough sleep. Always use prescription drugs as instructed and lay off the illegal ones. Try sleeping on your side rather than your back. If you do find yourself being approached by demons, or ghosts, or hags, or aliens, attempt to change your breathing pattern. Doing this can jolt your brain into awakening your muscles and make the nightmares all go away.

With that being said, maybe the newly-announced all-female Ghostbusters will use Lamaze techniques to vanquish their enemies rather than the traditional proton packs. But let’s hope not.


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