Have you ever had the experience of waking up in a spot that wasn’t where you went to sleep? If you have, chances are you’re probably an avid dreamer and sleep talker/walker.
Somniloquy (sleep talking) and noctambulism (sleep walking) both fall into the category of parasomnia – unusual sleep behaviours and movements and it’s quite likely you, a friend or a family member are prone to a bit of nocturnal chatter. Turns out, taking a sleeping stroll or having a nice talk in the middle of the night is surprisingly common: a recent American study finding around 50 per cent of children and between five and ten per cent of adults sleep talk.
But why does our brain decide 1am is a good time for a chat or a brisk walk? Well, both conditions are mainly byproducts of our brain functioning as a mental ‘recycling bin’. It sorts through everything we’ve experienced while we’re awake and churns out dreams in the process.
Because of this, our dreams function as a vehicle for the brain to process the things freaking us out, in a bid to help us cope and solve our dilemmas. This is why they often feature the things preoccupying us – positive or negative.
As a rather active sleep talker from a young age I can attest to this. Having been told that while I sleep talk relatively regularly, it tends to spike after I’ve experienced something unsettling or frightening during the waking hours.
Madeleine Smedley sleep talked and walked for most of her life and notices when her waking life is stressful, her sleep walking and talking tend to be the same.
“I’ll find myself [asleep] just wandering around the house and trying to get things done,” she says. “I’m usually cleaning, organising or getting something together like getting out my clothes for the next day. Something like that.”
According to America’s National Sleep Foundation, while sleep talking can run in families and be relatively benign, it’s almost always influenced by external factors. Madeleine has certainly found this to be true.
“When I’m in a new location, if I’m staying the night somewhere I haven’t stayed before, I sometimes get out of bed and wander around,” she says. “It’s because I’m feeling unsafe and in unfamiliar territory”.
Despite saying her dreams and parasomnia have mostly been a result of stress – rather than the aftershocks of experiencing a traumatic or violent event – Madeleine says the incidents tend to share a common theme of aggression.
“Based on accounts that I’ve heard, all of my sleep talking is usually sleep arguing,” she says, “so it’ll be along the lines of ‘No. Stop that. Get off. I don’t like it’”.
But what about when we do experience a disturbing event? How does the recycling bin cope then? Despite our brain’s best intentions, things often don’t work out in the most positive way and we’re left with nightmares, or worse, night terrors. Both nightmares and terrors tend to be a result of trauma.
Radio producer and former armed forces member Ken Lim suffered a series of night terrors as a result of what he calls the “psychological violence” he experienced in the army and air force.
“When I was in the armed forces, it was really drilled into us that we needed to consistently be more prepared than we actually needed to be,” Ken said.
“Once I came back to civilisation [normal life] where we can decide things for ourselves I just couldn’t get accustomed to that, no matter how much I did I never felt like I had enough time.”
Ken was often abruptly awakened to be delivered bad news, which he thinks had a distinctive impact on his sleep cycles and parasomnia. So much so it lead to a pretty scary episode of noctambulism when he was disturbed by his housemate one evening.
“She woke me up and I actually just freaked out,” he says. “I jumped on top of her and almost started strangling her because I was so, truly afraid that this was somebody who was going to assault me.”
Many sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suffer from night terrors that either directly relate to negative events or manifest in equally terrifying but seemingly unrelated things. For Ken, this was insects.
“It would get set off by something as simple as a mozzie bite that would flip me out,” he says. “Overnight I would wake up and I would have dreams about just my mattress being really really thin and being bitten through that mattress.”
What can be done to help people who suffer parasomnia? Ken found sleeping with someone else helped and he no longer suffers from terrors or forms of parasomnia.
“I felt like that really helped out to have somebody that you could always count on and be used to having them beside you,” he says, “because I know if I were to be woken up in the middle of the night it would be this person”.
There are multiple sleep therapy centres in Melbourne alone, working to help people overcome the effects trauma has on our sleep.
For less severe instances of sleep walking and talking treatment is not always necessary (unless someone may get physically hurt). But we still need someone to ask the hard hitting questions.