Understanding ‘Old Hag’ Syndrome: What It Means When You’re Paralyzed in Your Sleep

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis occurs when your mind goes into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and you are paralyzed while dreaming. You may experience it during dreams or even at times when you wake up from them. Sometimes you will not have any memory of having had these experiences, but other times they seem very real to you. Some people experience it only once in their lives; others have experienced it many times over the years.

The most common type of sleep paralysis is called “old hag” because it’s usually caused by a ghost. A ghost is a spirit that has died and gone to rest in the same place where it was dead. Ghosts do not leave physical bodies, so they cannot be killed or harmed.

They are often described as being grayish white in color with long black hair and sometimes wearing clothes similar to yours or someone else’s clothing. They don’t speak, but they can cause you to see things.

Ghosts tend to appear in dreams and nightmares. If you’ve ever had a nightmare about something scary happening in your life, then chances are there is some truth behind it. Ghostly beings are said to come out of nowhere and make themselves known before disappearing again.

While ghosts aren’t really dangerous, they can be frightening if they do show up unexpectedly.

There are also other sleep paralysis causes:

Senses are heightened while awake. In other words, you feel like there are noises when it’s dead quiet and you feel like someone is watching you when there is no one else around. Your mind could be producing these sounds itself as a way to make itself more alert.

Drugs or alcohol that were ingested before going to sleep. This can affect your sleep patterns or cause the REM stage to last too long. Both of these factors can cause you to become paralyzed when you are dreaming.

You were sleepwalking or sleep talking during your paralysis. While both of these conditions do occur during REM sleep, they do not cause paralysis.

While you may experience sleep paralysis more than one time in your life, there is nothing to worry about. It should pass as you grow older and your brain grows used to the stages of sleep.

What Does the Old Hag Look Like?

The old hag is an urban legend that goes back hundreds of years. It is said to appear differently to all who see it, but it is almost always a terrifying experience. The most common way to encounter the old hag is when you are asleep. When this happens, you become paralyzed and unable to move no matter what you do.

The hag generally appears in your room, often sitting on or near your bed. She is described as being a withered, ugly old woman with grayish skin and either rotting or missing teeth. Her eyes are often described as being either hollow or completely black, and some people say that they can see right through you when she looks at them.

The worst part of the encounter is said to be when she puts her hand on your chest and whispers, “Don’t be afraid.” Afterwards, the paralysis sets in and you become immobilized.

The next morning, you will wake up and not remember what happened while you were asleep.

How to Get Out of It

If you experience sleep paralysis, there are a few things that you can do to make yourself feel safer and less helpless. Most of these techniques help to dispel myths about sleep paralysis and help you to feel safer, but they are still useful if you believe them or not.

Wake up your partner. If you experience sleep paralysis and you wake up your sleeping partner, the fear is alleviated because you no longer are alone. This also has the advantage of making sure that your partner wakes up as well, instead of staying asleep and possibly dying from sleep apnea.

Turn on all of the lights in your room. This makes the room very bright and less scary. If you have an alarm set, turn it on as well.

Play calming music. Some people find that listening to certain kinds of music helps to calm them. Play some music that you find soothing, or put on a radio and listen to a talk show or something that requires a lot of attention.

Don’t listen to anything scary or with a lot of yelling, as this could make you more scared.

Put on a sleep playlist. Making a playlist on your computer or phone of music that you know can help you feel relaxed is a great idea if you suffer from sleep paralysis. You can even make the playlist as a normal routine before bed.

This way, when you do have sleep paralysis, you can get the benefit of the playlist without having to do anything but lay there, unable to move.

Look out the window. If you have a window that can be opened, look out of it. If not, simply look around the room.

This will help to reaffirm that you are in a safe place and there is nothing to be afraid of.

Put on some gloves or mittens. Not only will this make you feel more secure, but if you have an open flame in your home, such as a candle or oil lamp, the chances of your house burning down are significantly reduced.

Slap yourself in the face. This helps to wake yourself up and creates a pattern of motion that is easily recognizable, thus making sleep paralysis less likely to continue.

Visualize. Think of a safe place. For example, a beach with low tide could be your safe place.

Or you could simply think about your room. The goal is to create an image in your mind that makes you feel relaxed and safe.

Put something sticky on your feet. If you worry that you may be walking in your sleep, placing something sticky, like fly paper, on the floor will ensure that you wake up if you step on it.

Remember: Eventually, sleep paralysis will end on its own. It is a completely normal reaction to a mental or physical trigger, so there’s no need to worry. These triggers can be anything from lack of sleep to stress.

Sleep paralysis itself can’t and won’t harm you in any way. If you find that you are experiencing it on a regular basis, however, or if the triggers become worse, make sure to talk to a doctor to see if they can help.

How to Get Help

It is normal to be afraid when going through sleep paralysis, especially if you feel like something is in the room with you. A good way to calm down in this situation is to visualize. Think about a calming scene, such as lying on a beach in the sand with low tide, or think of a safe place, such as your room.

The main goal is to create an image in your mind that makes you feel relaxed and safe. This, along with deep breathing, can help you to wake up enough to shake off sleep paralysis.

If this does not work and you continue to stay trapped in SP, it is recommended that you try other methods of awakening. One way is to turn all the lights on in the room, open your eyes as much as you can, and start yelling as loud as you can. Another way is to splash water on your face or pinch yourself.

If you are with someone, you can also have them perform one of these acts to help wake you up.

If all else fails, and you find yourself unable to move no matter what you try, remain calm. You may be having a nightmare, and there is nothing to be afraid of. Most of the time nightmares are incredibly irrational and it is common to wake up from one feeling quite embarrassed about it.

Sleep paralysis is very common. It can be caused by stress, sleeping in an awkward position, or not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. If you find that you are experiencing it on a regular basis, or if the triggers are becoming worse, make sure to talk to a doctor to see if they can help.

Most of the time there is no real medical need to see a doctor for SP. However, it can be a good idea to talk to a professional if you find yourself getting SP on a frequent basis. There may be deeper issues at hand that could be playing a role in causing your episodes.

But remember, this is only if you feel like it is becoming a more serious problem.

Also, if you find that you are suddenly unable to move your entire body, let alone just your neck, and are beginning to feel suffocated—this is not sleep paralysis. This is most likely a health issue and you should seek medical attention immediately.

Sleep paralysis can become very frightening, especially if you do not know what is happening to you. But remember, SP itself will not harm you in any physical way. If you keep this in mind, along with trying the tips provided here, it should help you to overcome your fear of sleep paralysis.

Other Tips

If you suffer from sleep paralysis on a regular basis, there are a few other steps you can take to help make the experience less frightening and something you can handle:

Relax – Remember to remain calm. Take deep, meditative breaths and try your best to remain as relaxed as possible. Focusing on your breathing will help to keep you calm, and keep you from panicking.

Baptiste Technique – This involves performing a set sequence of moves to help wake yourself from sleep paralysis. These moves were originally created for epilepsy patients, but they can also be used to help break yourself free of a SP episode. The sequence is: Thrust your feet up against the bed several times.

Bite on a pencil or pen until the episode subsides.

Thrust your legs straight out against the bed several times. Press your head back into the pillow and fully extend your arms out to the side.

Finishing – After you have broken free of a sleep paralysis episode, do not move too much or get out of bed right away. It is best to stay in the same position you were in before the attack, and just try to slowly go back to sleep. If you start feeling sleepy again, it should help pull you out of the SP state.

Again, if these techniques do not work for you, or if the SP episodes are becoming more frequent or harder to handle (especially if they are accompanied by other symptoms), you should consult a doctor and see what can be done to remedy the situation.

Final Thoughts

If you suffer from sleep paralysis on a regular basis, it can lead to a lot of fear. You may even become scared to go to sleep, as you never know when the episodes will strike. But as long as you take the proper steps to deal with SP, and don’t let it get the best of you, you can overcome this condition and live a normal life.

And if all else fails, you can take comfort in the fact that most sleep paralysis episodes only last a few minutes, and then you will be free to enjoy the rest of your night.

If you have any other tips that you would like to share on how to deal with sleep paralysis, please feel free to add them to the comments section. And again, if you found this article helpful, please Share it with your friends.

Thank you and good night!

Sources & references used in this article:

The old hag phenomenon as sleep paralysis: A biocultural interpretation by RC Ness – Culture, medicine and psychiatry, 1978 – Springer

The terror that comes in the night: An experience-centered study of supernatural assault traditions by D Hufford – 1982 – books.google.com

Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome among Hmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the” Nightmare” by SR Adler – Journal of American Folklore, 1991 – JSTOR

… falling asleep. Your rest is soon disturbed, though, by some sort of rustling noise. You open your eyes and recognize the normal features of your bedroom in the … by C Patterns – Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the …, 2011 – books.google.com

Sleep paralysis in Brazilian folklore and other cultures: a brief review by JFR de Sá, SA Mota-Rolim – Frontiers in psychology, 2016 – frontiersin.org