What Is Sleep Paralysis and the Hag Syndrome?

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Basics About Sleep Paralysis

You wake in the night, fully conscious, fully awake, but completely unable to move a muscle. It feels like something is pressing down on your chest. You see shadowy figures moving about your room. You hear dark voices whispering words you cannot make out. There is a terrifying feeling that something is in the room with you, something dark, awful, and unspeakably evil.

What has happened?

You’ve just experience the terrifying phenomenon called “sleep paralysis.” In this article, we’ll have a look at:

  • Sleep paralysis in antiquity and mythology.
  • Theories regarding sleep paralysis.
  • Techniques to cope with sleep paralysis.

If you’ve never experienced sleep paralysis, consider yourself lucky.

It’s estimated that anywhere between as few as 8% and as high as 30% of us will experience sleep paralysis at some point in our lives. Getting to know about it before it happens will help understand what’s going on.

If you’re one of the those who have already experienced it, or have recurring episodes, this article will help you get a grip on what it is and what you can do to learn to cope with it.

The Hag Syndrome: Sleep Paralysis Through the Ages

Sleep paralysis is not a modern phenomenon. It has been reported throughout the ages and throughout various mythologies.

It was once called the Hag Syndrome as it was thought to be caused by an evil hag-like demon creeping onto the chests of sleepers and attempting to steal their souls.

The legends of the incubus and succubus, nocturnal demons thought to force themselves sexually upon humans while they slept, are thought to perhaps originate from the accounts of people actually suffering from sleep paralysis.

It is also interesting to note that in the beginning, nightmares did not refer to unpleasant dreams. “Nightmare” was originally the word used to describe attacks by demonic creatures while people slept. Unpleasant imagery was a side effect of the attack, not the attack itself.

10 Facts About Sleep Paralysis

Neurochemical Theory of Sleep Paralysis

A more scientific theory regarding sleep paralysis conceptualizes it as a physiological chemical malfunction, not a paranormal assault.

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During REM sleep, our bodies produce a chemicals designed to induce a sort of physical paralysis.

Why?

Because unless we are lucid dreaming, our minds aren’t aware our bodies are sleeping. Our minds make no distinction between the awake and sleeping states. If we were not in a state akin to paralysis while asleep, we would attempt to act out our dreams.

Typically, this effect is meticulously timed to wear off before we are fully awake, or is wearing off as we shake sleep off. Many of us are unaware of this process at all.

But when sleep paralysis occurs, our minds exit REM sleep before the chemical keeping us in our beds wears off. Our minds are fully awake but completely incapable of engaging our bodies. The result is sleep paralysis.

Nightmares or Sleep Paralysis?

Historically, the source of the phenomenon that we now call sleep paralysis had a preternatural origin.

Nightmares are as common as dreams and people throughout all ages experience them. But where modern people primarily describe disturbing or frightening imagery, ancient people were referring to something a bit different—something more visceral and terrifying than a “bad dream.”

In antiquity, the “night-mare” wasn’t an image; it was an actual being.

Whether the being was a creature such as an incubus, succubus, vampire, demon, or any of myriad evil entities, the creature was real and had something more sinister than imagery in mind.

In fact, in antiquity, the imagery was the side-effect of the “night-mare” attacking the dreamer. It was not the attack itself. This attack on vulnerable sleeping humans was the meaning the word “nightmare” conveyed. It is likely that it is also the word that most accurately conveys the phenomenon we call “sleep paralysis.”

The Sensed Presence

For a unique take on sleep paralysis, look to Todd Murphy.

Murphy traces sleep paralysis to the very core of our beings: our sense of self. It’s not something we think about often, is it? We’re so used to being us we rarely stop to consider precisely what defines us. On that score we’re much like fish: so wet we’ve no concept of what water is?

Murphy presents an argument that we are linguistic beings. As linguistic beings we have a voice that expresses itself verbally using sound to give shape to thought. However, we have another voice that forms those thought expressed in sound, an inner voice.

Those voices are almost completely unaware of each other, fitting hand in glove, for lack of back analogy. But occasionally, the conscious mind no longer experiences the inner voice as thought, but senses it as another person, another presence, an alien presence.

In Murphy’s theory, the right hemisphere of the brain—which is the origin of the inner voice—does not communicate in words, but in symbols and sensation. Often, the symbol it uses or projects as an outwardly observed entity while a person is in a semi-conscious state, is that of a hooded entity—something akin to a monk symbolizing the silent life in which it (we) exist!

Todd Murphy’s website is absolutely fascinating for the mystic/science minded of us. The link to his site is in the “Dig Deeper” section at the end of this article.

what-is-sleep-paralysis-and-the-hag-syndrome

Sleep Paralysis in Mythology and Folklore Around the World

Culture Creature Lore

Zimbabwean Shona

Madzikirira

In Shona culture, only relatives can be bewitched. The Madzikirira attempts to bewitch sleepers making them “family” in order to use them to carry out evil actions.

Icelandic

Mara

This goblin is the one who lends its name to the word “nightmare.” The terrible dreams that people had were not, in and of themselves nightmares. Nightmares were the side effect of a Mara attacking during sleep.

Catalonian

Pesanta

A giant, hairy, horrible dog with steel paws who creeps into the houses of the sleeping, climbs into their beds and sits on their chests making breathing difficult and filling dreams with terrifying imagery.

Brazilian

Pisadeira

If you want to avoid “She who steps,” don’t go to sleep on a full stomach. Pisadeira, a bony, old, white-haired, woman with long, dirty fingernails, green teeth, and red eyes, lives on rooftops waiting for a person to go to sleep on a full belly at which point she flies down and stands on the sleeper’s chest, cackling her evil laugh.

Latvian

Lietuvēns

Lietuvēns is meant to be the soul of someone who died by some manner or asphyxiation–drowning, hanging, strangling. The creature attacks not only humans, but animals as well. There is a remedy for escaping a Lietuvēns attack: wiggling a toe on your left foot.

Thai

Phi Am (ผีอำ)

The Phi Am ghost who, according to Thai lore, may press hard enough on sleepers to cause them bruises is such a common tale that it figures prominently in Thai comic book plots and stories.

Hmong

Dab Tsog

The Dab Tsog is spirit that sits on the chests of its victims while trying to strangle them. Cases of SUNDS (sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome) are sometimes attributed to a Dab Tsog’s attacks.

Coping With Sleep Paralysis

For some, sleep paralysis can be a one-off experience. For others it can be a distressing, recurrent event.

If sleep paralysis becomes a recurrent issue, it might be helpful to note that there are some triggers that can cause the event. These triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Dramatic life changes
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Medication–including sleep meds
  • Erratic sleep patterns
  • Substance abuse
  • Sleeping on one’s back
  • Emotional issues

What can be done to alleviate sleep paralysis?

  • Speak to your doctor. Medication may be in order for chronic, prolonged events.
  • See a naturopath. A naturopath can help you track down the source of the issue instead of treating the event itself.
  • Seek counseling to recover your resilience.
  • Get adequate sleep on a consistence routine.
  • Keep dream and/or sleep journals.
  • Try new sleeping positions.

When having an attack of sleep paralysis, advising anyone to “remain calm” is likely as helpful as the advice to not think of elephants, but there it is!

If remaining calm is impossible, try at least not fighting the experience. Instead of trying to jump out of bed and walk it off, try remaining still. If that isn’t possible, try making small movements like wiggling your toes or just moving your eyes back and forth.

No matter how scary the moment, it is just that—a moment. And every moment passes!

Sources

  • Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives, Brian A. Sharpless and Karl Doghramji, Publisher: Oxford University Press, June 2015
  • Murphy, Todd. “The Sensed Presence.” Spirituality and the Brain, www.god-helmet.com/wp/sp.htm. 10 May 2022.
  • “Sleep Paralysis.” WebMD, www.webmd.com. 12 May 2022

Dig Deeper

  • The Sensed Presence
    The feeling of a presence reflects activity in the brain. It’s the most subtle form of a ‘visitor experience’ which includes spirits, ghosts and other beings.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Róisín Aisling Ireland

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