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The "Old Hag" Syndrome

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THE SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION

The medical establishment is quite aware of this phenomenon, but has a less sensational name than "old hag syndrome" for it. They call it "sleep paralysis" or SP (sometimes ISP for "isolated sleep paralysis").

So what causes it? Dr. Max Hirshkowitz, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston, says that sleep paralysis occurs when the brain is in the transition state between deep, dreaming sleep (known as REM sleep for its rapid eye movement) and waking up. During REM dreaming sleep, the brain has turned off most of the body's muscle function so we cannot act out our dreams - we are temporarily paralyzed.

"Sometimes your brain doesn't fully switch off those dreams - or the paralysis - when you wake up," Hirshkowitz told ABC News. "That would explain the 'frozen' feeling and hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis." According to his research, the effect only really lasts from a few seconds to as long as a minute, but in this half-dream half-awake state, to the victim it can seem much longer.

In her article, "Help! I Can't Move!,"Florence Cardinal writes: "Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations. There may be a sense someone is in the room, or even hovering over you. At other times, there seems to be pressure on the chest, as though someone or something perched there. There may even be sexual attacks associated with the hallucinations. The sound of footsteps, doors opening and closing, voices, all can be a very frightening part of sleep paralysis. These are known as Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences and they are what make people dread an episode of sleep paralysis."

For all their explanations, however, the sleep experts still do not know what causes the brain to screw up like this, or why some people experience it more than others. But there are some theories:

  • "Episodes of paralysis can occur when the body is in any position, but happen most frequently when the sleeper is lying flat on his or her back. Intense fear is common, but sometimes other strong emotions, such as sadness or anger, are present," says Florence Cardinal in "The Terror of Sleep Paralysis."
  • For some, sleep paralysis is often brought about by not getting enough sleep or being overtired. Likewise, disrupted sleep schedules or circadian rhythm disturbances can produce an episode of sleep paralysis.
  • It is more common in people who suffer from severe anxiety or bipolar disorder. Some research shows that sleep paralysis is five times more likely to occur with people who are taking such anti-anxiety drugs as Xamax or Valium.
  • A study found that 35 percent of subjects with isolated sleep paralysis also report a history of wake panic attacks unrelated to the experience of paralysis.

How can you prevent sleep paralysis? According to clinical research, you may be able to minimize the episodes by following good sleep hygiene:

  • get enough sleep
  • reduce stress
  • exercise regularly (but not too close to bedtime)
  • keep a regular sleep schedule.

"For some people this may not be possible, however," says Florence Cardinal, "so instead let's look at ways to escape from the grip of sleep paralysis. The best remedy is to will yourself to move, even if it's only the wiggling of your little finger. This is often sufficient to break the spell. If you can manage it, scream! Your roommate may not appreciate it, but it's better than suffering through a long and fear-filled episode. If all else fails, seek professional help."

Sounds like good advice. The bottom line is that you really have nothing to fear, in a paranormal sense, from sleep paralysis. That old hag you feel perched on your chest may be nothing more than the anxiety of living in a stressful world.

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