MUSC researchers seek subjects to study sleep paralysis, especially in black community

  • Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 12:01 a.m., Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 10:57 a.m.
A candidate for the sleep paralysis study in MUSC’s Anxiety Sleep Clinic provided this description of a visiting “hag” to an artist.

Rebecca Wright recalls the terrifying sleep experiences she had as a child. She would be conscious, but paralyzed. And she felt threatened that an evil woman she could not see was sitting on her chest.

MUSC sleep study

What: MUSC’s Sleep Anxiety Clinic is looking for people of all ethnic backgrounds to take part in a sleep paralysis study. The research will collect and analyze information on what some refer to as being ridden by a “hag” or “haint.”

More info: Contact sleephelp@musc.edu, or call 792-0403.

Appointment: To make an appointment with Dr. Thomas Uhde, who is leading the study, contact Audrey Kobayashi at kobayash@musc.edu or 792-0028.

Wright’s experiences included hearing and feeling the woman’s heavy breathing, she says. As she would begin to recover control of her body, she sometimes also believed she saw a very dark man sitting in the chair next to her bed.

“It’s very scary because you are awake, but can’t move your mouth, can’t breathe,” says Wright, who is describing what some Lowcountry folks say is having been ridden by a “hag” or “haint.”

Those who study such experiences, called sleep paralysis, say they usually occur as subjects fall asleep or wake up. Sleep paralysis, unlike dreams, are experienced as real life events.

Many folk practices have been offered as remedies for keeping “hags” at bay over the years. Preventing intrusions is the reason behind the continuing practice of painting porch ceilings, doors or shutters in the area “haint blue,” or light blue.

Dr. Thomas Uhde, chairman of MUSC’s department of psychiatry, says that in at least one study, significantly more African-Americans reported experiencing sleep paralysis than non-African-Americans. It’s possible that others feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Uhde is looking for people of all ethnic backgrounds who experience recurring sleep paralysis for a study through MUSC’s Anxiety Sleep Clinic. While the experiences are not harmful, and people can move without injury once the episode subsides, questions remain.

Do African-Americans, including those in the Lowcountry, experience sleep paralysis more often? Is it causing them to be distressed, disabled or less functioning? If so, is the sleep paralysis an indication the person should be screened for some treatable condition such as narcolepsy?

Researcher David Hufford, university professor emeritus, Penn State College of Medicine, experienced sleep paralysis in 1964 and began studying it in 1970, he says.

Those who study sleep paralysis once thought it had been experienced by 1 percent of the population. Current thinking is that 18 percent to 20 percent, in the United States and elsewhere, is a more accurate figure.

“Unusual Personal Experiences: An Analysis From Three National Surveys” was conducted by The Roper Poll in 1992. The survey had 5,947 respondents, randomly selected across the U.S. One survey question was “Do you remember ever waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange presence in the room?” Eighteen percent said they had the experience, 5 percent said more than once or twice and 13 percent twice.

In a mid-1980s study led by Dr. Carl C. Bell for the Community Mental Health Council on Chicago’s Southside, 25 percent more African-Americans than non-African Americans were found to have experienced sleep paralysis at least once a month.

Among ethnic groups in general, sleep paralysis often is mistaken for symptoms of other things such as alien abduction, schizophrenia and narcolepsy, Hufford says.

“People need to know that they are not crazy,” both Uhde and Hufford say, adding that it’s important that people know the cause of their sleep paralysis and that it won’t kill or injure them.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.

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