Sleep-talking woman’s midnight monologues wreak havoc on sleep
Editor’s note: This story will appear in Healthy Living on Sunday, April 15, 2012.
BY KRISTIN DAVIS
I am on my way to bed when I remember I forgot to lock the door. I walk briskly up the carpeted hallway to the front of the house. I am steps away, my hand already reaching for the lock, when I see the man—a stranger on the other side of the door.
I am too late.
The stranger steps into the house. I try to scream. Nothing. I try again. This time, sound comes out, low and unnatural.
Then I awake from my dream, and so does my husband, who has shot upright from his sleep, ready to take on whatever has caused me to yell out.
I have been talking in my sleep again—practically all night, my husband tells me—and my nighttime soliloquy has turned to shouting just as he has fallen back into his own reverie. I am a freak of nature, I think to myself, although it turns out my behavior might actually be normal.
“Everybody sleep-talks sometimes,” said Dr. Maha Alattar, a board-certified sleep expert with Sleep Medicine Specialists in Fredericksburg. “It doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem.”
A majority of healthy young adults experience some kind of dream-enacting behavior—actually feeling scared after a frightening dream or smiling when they wake up from a happy one, according to a study cited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Dream-enacting can also include talking, crying or acting out; more than half the nearly 500 who participated in the 2009 study said they’d experienced such a phenomenon.
Even more reported somniloquy: speaking or making sounds without being able to clearly recall the dream, according to the study.
Sleep talking usually happens in the lighter stages of sleep, Alattar said, and some think it is associated with dreaming. But no one knows for certain what induces these midnight monologues.
PRATTLING ALL NIGHT
Stress and anxiety may have something to do with it, Alattar said. Some sleeping pills can also cause sleep talking. So can post-traumatic stress disorder and narcolepsy.
Doctors can prescribe medicine to make it stop, but the side effects from those are often more troublesome than the sleep talking itself, she said.
Men and children are more apt to sleep talk than others, according to the National Sleep Foundation, although I am neither. It also says sleep talking tends to run in families; my maternal grandfather is known to yell out as he falls asleep and my mother does her share of subconscious mumbling.
And while it usually isn’t a problem for the sleep-talker, it can be a problem for a sleep partner, Alattar said. The dream of the stranger at the door marked at least the third time in the last year or so I have awakened myself —and my husband—with a strange-sounding shout.
I can sleep for weeks in silence. At other times, I prattle unintelligibly all night long and all week long, with no recollection of it in the mornings. And then there are the nights when my words are perfectly clear, so clear that perhaps they wake me. I will instantly remember my diatribe, and who I was talking to, and, more often than not, the four-letter words that laced it.
In real life, I try to watch my tongue.
What people say in their sleep is no indication of who they are, said Alattar, who was once asked by a woman why her otherwise kind husband would say such bad things when he slept.
“There’s no intention behind it,” Alattar said. “The primitive part of the brain is acting up.”
What someone says while sleeping is also usually not admissible in court because “it is not a product of a conscious or rational mind,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.
A woman in England, struck by the nonsensical things her husband said when he sleep talked, started a blog that became an Internet sensation. She called it “Sleep Talkin’ Man” and decided to start recording his talk of rainbow goats, radioactive rhinos, kidnapped monkeys and chocolate cream cheese.
There are instances where sleep talking should be taken seriously, however—like if it’s accompanied by violent movements such as kicking, punching or thrashing. That could be a sign of a sleep disorder, Alattar said, or an underlying psychiatric problem.
In those cases, it might be worth undergoing a sleep study, she said. “It could be the tip of the iceberg. Or it could be simple. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s an island. It stands by itself.”
Kristin Davis is a freelance writer living in Fredericksburg.