The weird world of parasomnias
Collectively, parasomnias are an umbrella term for strange experiences and behaviours that occur when we’re asleep, falling asleep or rousing from it. Here’s a few of the more common ones.
Sleepwalking and other somnambulism
Somnambulism simply refers to moving about and being active while asleep. It can include walking, talking, eating and even having sex. Somnambulism always occurs in deep NREM sleep. According to Matthew Walker, the trigger to this behaviour is a jolt of nervous-system activity to the sleeping brain that results in a state of mixed consciousness. The body and the brain start carrying out automatic, frequently performed actions such as walking, talking, sitting and in rarer cases driving.
Somnambulism is more common in children, possibly because they experience more NREM sleep than adults.
• While an odd, often alarming sight to the beholder, it’s a relatively natural and common phenomenon. There’s generally no harm to the individual, although it’s a good idea to lock the doors at night on anyone who sleepwalks.
As mentioned previously, a key function of dreams is to help us process emotions – a type of emotional detox for the brain. Thus, the troubles of our waking existence can feed into our sleep and manifest as nightmares. Sickness and medications can cause nightmares, too.
While nightmares generally don’t harm us, they can wake us. And if we have too many, they might seriously rob us of sleep. The content of nightmares can also cause daytime distress, affect mood and cause us to fear sleep.
Having lots of disturbing or scary dreams is associated with PTSD, trauma, stress, anxiety, depression and feeling suicidal. It’s also more common in younger women, less common once we’re over 50. This might reflect the higher levels of abuse and depression experienced by young women and the fact emotional wellbeing (and financial security) tends to peak in later years.
Life begins at 50, so the saying goes.
Nightmares also tend to be more common in children under 12 years and (provided they aren’t excessive) may be a natural part of childhood related to their greater time spent in REM dream sleep.
• Therapy, counselling, energy healing and self-care to heal the root cause of your nightmares.
• Learning self-soothing methods can help greatly.
• Relaxation strategies like meditation. Positive visualisation is highly effective.
• Lucid dreaming (where one consciously controls their dream) is also encouraged.
Sleep paralysis can be terrifying for the person experiencing it. Not helping matters, it can be dismissed by others as imaginary nonsense or a bad dream. Thankfully, science has revealed the biological basis behind what many sufferers have mistaken for demon possession, alien abduction or some other paranormal phenomena.
In sleep paralysis, which mostly occurs during REM sleep, we wake up before the paralysis instigated by the brain (to keep us safe during REM) has ceased. The result is being conscious but trapped within our own body, unable to move, open our eyelids or scream out for help! Our discomfort and dread can be enhanced if we wake in the midst of a nightmare.
An episode can last as long as 20 minutes, although six seconds is the more bearable average length, according to an article by Brian Sharpless in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.
Relatively common, according to one study of over 36,000 people, 7.6 per cent had experienced sleep paralysis at least once. According to Sharpless, sleep paralysis seems to be more common in students, shift workers, people with trauma histories, narcolepsy, sleep apnoea, high blood pressure and Wilson’s disease.
• Education about the condition, self-reassurance and understanding you’ll regain control of your body.
• Practise and prioritise good sleep habits.
• Studies suggest meditation techniques are helpful and also useful during an attack to reduce anxiety.
• If sleep paralysis remains recurring and frequent, seek out a clinician to rule out other potential health issues.