The Horrid Hallucinations and Scary Symptoms of Sleep Paralysis


If you've ever woken up with a terrible sense of fear and foreboding and feeling

like someone was sitting on your chest, then you've been visited by the 'Old Hag.'


The term 'Old Hag,' or 'sleep hag', as it's sometimes called, is rooted in ancient folklore and is the name for what we now know as sleep paralysis. It is a relatively common, and harmless occurrence, but coupled with hallucinations and an inability to move an episode of sleep paralysis can be a harrowing experience. But what is it that makes sleep paralysis so scary? To answer that question, we should first try to understand what is actually going on with our minds and bodies when we experience such a ghastly event.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis occurs when features from the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of our sleep follow us into our waking period. The REM phase is that time in our sleep cycle when our minds are most active. We can vividly imagine sounds, sights and experience our dreams. It's estimated that around 20 percent of otherwise healthy people experience occasional sleep paralysis, sometimes not only when they are waking up, but also when they're falling asleep.


Most common symptoms

Sleep paralysis can last for several minutes, and in most cases, we are still able to move our eyes. A condition called 'muscle atonia' kicks in, paralysing our bodies and adding to our sense of helplessness and it is this temporary inability to speak or move that makes sleep paralysis so unsettling.


Sometime we might attempt to call for help, or even scream, but all we are capable of is a form of soft vocalisation, such as a grunt or a whisper, a moan or a whimper. We might also experience a sense of breathlessness and feel as if we're suffocating because most of our muscles have shut down for the rest period.


And while our diaphragm functions as a kind of bellows while we sleep, the majority of the muscles that help us breath are more or less inactive. Even the rise and fall of our ribcage as air is sucked and exhaled into and out of our lungs is restricted, which can cause us to imagine someone is sitting on our chest.


Our levels of awareness can also vary. We believe ourselves to be fully awake and conscious of our surroundings, or we might have only a partial realisation. Some of us may have an out-of-body sensation and believe they are floating above the bed and looking down at their own bodies.



Vivid hallucinations, or in other words, experiencing something that isn't there can also be a component of sleep paralysis. It's like we are awake and dreaming at the same time. Having a hallucination doesn't always have to be a frightening experience, it can also be somewhat pleasant. Sleep experts divide the hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis into four categories:



The visual experience can be quite intense. We may sense the presence of another person, which we interpret as a shadowy, dark figure or a ghost just on the edge of our field of vision. It's also possible for us to see a number of people in the room simultaneously. Bright flashing colours and lights are possible. Some people have reported seeing gargoyles, cats, bugs and even a dismembered hand.



Similar to the visual hallucinations, auditory hallucinations during sleep paralysis range from the routine to the bizarre. We may hear a variety of sounds from knocking, ringing, footsteps, or the noise made by a radio untuned to any station. Hearing voices, such as laughing, whispering or screaming is not uncommon.



The experience of being touched is one of the most reported factors during sleep paralysis. We might feel a contact or a pressure and feel as if someone is holding us down. Numbness and vibrating or tingling sensations are also possible. So is the impression of falling, floating or flying.



As with the other categories of hallucination, we can imagine a vast range of odours, fragrances and smells both familiar and unfamiliar.


The emotional component

One of the most profound and lasting elements of sleep paralysis is the emotional component. Many of us will experience sleep paralysis as a waking nightmare. We are convinced that the dark figure we see from the corner of our eye is evil and they intend to do us real harm. This can be an extremely frightening experience, often accompanied by a strong sense of impending doom. And it all feels so very, very real.


Weird and strange are just two of the words we might use to describe what we think is happening to us during sleep paralysis. Some people have summarised the experience as disgusting and shocking, and report feeling angry, worried and helpless. But on rare occasions, we may even take a sense of comfort and reassurance from the experience.


Having a better understanding of the symptoms of sleep paralysis can go a long way to helping us deal with the condition and up to a certain point, we may even learn to tolerate it. But if we do find our episodes of sleep paralysis too distressing there are a few things we can do to help alleviate the condition.


Sleep advice

Sleep paralysis shouldn't happen every time we try to sleep or wake up. But if it does occur frequently, then there are ways to optimise our sleep. We can make sure we're getting enough regular sleep, for example.  Or we can avoid drinking alcohol an hour or two before going to bed. For some, sleeping on our sides instead of on our backs might also help. In acute cases, it would be wise to undergo a sleep study to identify the causes of our sleep problems. And of course, if we think we need help with any kind of health issue at all, we should always seek out a medical professional first.

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