Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Tricks of the Mind: My Experience of Migraines, Sleep Paralysis & Hallucinations

So I stood in front of the mirror pondering why my face looked like a Picasso painting and totally forgot to take painkillers. This is an occupational hazard for psychology students, we love thinking about thinking! Whenever something odd happens in my brain I think about that rather than my primary needs.

I had my first migraine in my teens then sporadically until my early 20’s when an acute period of stress made them frequent and debilitating. Thankfully, I no longer have them as bad. Over the years I’ve had some strange (paranormal) experiences in the prodrome phase:
  •  Alterations to vision, depth/face perception, light anomalies (between attacks), movement in peripheral vision
  •  An out of body experience. The sensation I was sitting to the right of myself
  • Not feeling in control of my arm(s)
  • Someone else’s voice coming out of my mouth
  • Talking gibberish when I thought I was talking normally
  • Ringing in my ears, voices in my head
  • Unable to control the recall of negative memories 
  • Music composition (which I can’t normally do)
  • Numbness in limbs 
Migraines are believed to be a neurovascular disorder but the precise mechanisms are unknown. Both genetics and environment play their role. As a woman with other family members with it (although not as severe) the environmental stress triggered the condition. For many years I regularly had visual light anomalies, sometimes up to 50 a day! Nothing will knock your faith in your own perception more than seeing things you know aren’t there. I have the less common ‘classic’ migraine with aura but it used to take a week before my vision got back to normal.

They have also been linked to sleep paralysis, which I have. I’ve only had true sleep paralysis twice – being fully conscious but unable to move. However, I do regularly have the more common hypnagogia (going to sleep) and hypnopompic (waking from sleep) hallucinations associated with moving between different stages of sleep, i.e. alpha wave activity associated with waking and paralysis of REM sleep. Here I ‘wake up’ and see things in my room only to wake properly a few seconds later.  I’ve had some unusual hallucinations:
  • Spiders (most common). I once woke up having jumped out of bed!
  • The rubber man from American Horror Story
  • A UFO covered in tinfoil
  • A ‘ghost’ woman floating above me
  • A severed head
  • Zombie face
  • Auditory hallucinations: buzzing, screams
It’s easy to see how some of the above could be interpreted as real paranormal phenomena. Particularly, if it was the first time you had the experience and were unaware of what was happening. In his excellent book on Migraine (1967) the late, great Oliver Sacks also linked the condition to the religious visions of Hildegarde of Bingen

So be wary… the mind can play tricks on you. What we perceive may not always be what is going on ‘out there’.  

*It is unusual for these conditions to suddenly appear or start later in life so please consult your doctor.
You can find out more about Migraine and Sleep Paralysis at the following links:

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