Is My Sleep Talking Out Of Control Or Am I Just Possessed?

Illustrated by Meg O'Donnell
"Chickens!" I yell. "Chicken heads are like fingers inside red rubber gloves!" If this sounds like I'm chatting shit, it's because I am. Although I don't actually know what I'm talking about because I am asleep.
I am a chatterbox in the early hours, according to my boyfriend, who lies awake and watches me have full-blown conversations with myself. Sometimes I answer back, sometimes I wake myself up, laughing hysterically. He thinks I'm possessed.
Sleep talking, also known as somniloquy, is very common, according to Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director of Sleep School. "It's actually very common in childhood," he tells me. "Parasomnias (any sleep disorder that causes abnormal behaviour) occur when the brain is transitioning between sleep stages — when it's going from light to deep or deep to light. Around 20% of children will suffer from some form of parasomnia which can include sleepwalking, night terrors and sleep talking." Most people grow out of it as they move into adulthood, he continues. By the age of 12, it's supposed to have completely gone away. "But I'm almost 30," I say. He laughs. "Only around 4% continue to do it." Apparently I'm a rare breed. But as I found out, I'm not alone.
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"I usually wake up to my partner telling me what I said during the night," 25-year-old PMO analyst Phoebe Herschdorfer tells me. "It can range from me talking about how much of a loyal customer I am to my bank and I wouldn't want to upset them by going to another bank, to conspiracy theories about Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the part they played in bringing drugs to America."

I was hosting many a Graham Norton-esque chat show from my bedroom in the dead of night.

Lucie
Freelance brand consultant and nanny, Lucie Turner, 26, says that when she was growing up, her mother called her 'an odd child' because of her sleep talking. "I would talk about things as mundane as dividing fractions and reciting shopping lists to the uber weird, like crying about losing imaginary people or randomly screaming, 'Let go of me now [insert family member name] or I'll call the POLICE!'"
Lucie's flatmates at university also reported her habit. "They would say they could hear me arguing through the walls before big tests or essay hand-ins," she adds. "If there was something that I'd been avoiding talking about with another person, I would have full-on conversations in my dreams where I resolved these issues, which would make me really confused when I awoke."
Like Lucie and Phoebe, and according to my parents, I've been sleepwalking and sleep talking since a young age, when I would wake up in the middle of the night and rummage through the kitchen cupboards while mumbling to myself. As I've aged, my mumbling has turned into conversations, arguments and hysterical laughing. It's clear I'm having a blast but should I be concerned? And can it be stopped?
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"It's prevention rather than cure," says Dr Meadows. "We're not able to magically stop you from sleep talking but we can limit the factors that might increase its propensity." That means keeping good sleep hygiene: going to bed at the same time each night, limiting caffeine, alcohol and nicotine and turning off main lights. "It's not abstinence, it's about balance and understanding," Dr Meadows adds. "Going to bed and getting up every day at the same time can seem super dull and boring but it's the most powerful health tip that humans can do. That's because every biological process is regulated by our internal body clock, a biological timekeeper which tells each process to be active and inactive, hungry or when to fast, when to be strong or to relax. Our body is regulated by this 24-hour rhythm."

Going to bed and getting up every day at the same time can seem super dull and boring but it's the most powerful health tip that humans can do.

Dr Guy meadows
The causes are complicated but there has apparently been a significant uptick in sleep talking since the start of the pandemic. Sleep School's 2020-21 research, conducted by global research agency CINT with a national sample of 3,026 Brits, found that 43% of the UK population's sleep has worsened since the COVID-19 outbreak, with 54% saying they are now dissatisfied with their sleep. Fifty-three percent said they didn't know what to do to improve their sleep. Issues like sleep talking can be caused by a multitude of factors, Dr Meadows adds, such as work stress, difficulty switching off, juggling home and work life and higher rates of mental health such as depression and anxiety.
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"My sleep talking has definitely come back recently," Lucie adds. "If I'm feeling anxious — which, let's be honest, is the one mood we can seemingly never escape in lockdown — it returns with a vengeance. Lots of change and uncertainty in those first few months equated to me hosting many a Graham Norton-esque chat show from my bedroom in the dead of night."
Phoebe says stress might be the cause of hers. "I guess I have a really active brain. I have very vivid dreams and I always remember [them] in the morning so it might be linked to that. The more vivid the dreams, the more likely I am to react to them as if I'm awake. I do think the more stressed or busy I am, the more likely I am to sleep talk."
I'm bipolar and my active brain can never switch off, especially when I'm going through a manic episode (usually when I can't sleep for days), but it has worsened during the pandemic. Dr Meadows says he's not surprised. "At the beginning of lockdown, people stayed at home, they lost their commute, a timekeeper. People started going to bed later and getting up later," he tells me. "We have lost really important anchors that work for our biological timing and huge amounts of uncertainty can impact us during the pandemic."
He continues: "The potential for sleeplessness is high and it can be in the form of insomnia or increased stress levels, which can amplify other sleep disturbances, such as sleep talking, sleepwalking, nightmares or insomnia." It can feel like constant jet lag, he adds.
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Journalling is a really helpful way of creating a distance between you and your thoughts, or giving your worrisome mind a name like a Mr Men character. The point is acknowledging it, having a sense of compassion for your mind and accepting it.

Dr Guy meadows
Having interrupted sleep does feel like constant jet lag, not least for my boyfriend who is directly impacted by my nightly outbursts. So what can I do to ensure both myself and my boyfriend can have a restful night? "If you have worries, COVID worries, health worries or financial worries, you can recognise that your thoughts are separate from you," Dr Meadows tells me. "Journalling is a really helpful way of creating a distance between you and your thoughts, or giving your worrisome mind a name like a Mr Men character. The point is acknowledging it, having a sense of compassion for your mind and accepting it."
I have decided to take Dr Meadows' advice on board and have named my overactive brain Little Miss Chaos. I also journal an hour before I go to bed. While it's imperative for my lifestyle to stay structured – going to bed early, eating regular meals and exercising – just acknowledging my thoughts, even if they are about chickens (both lucid and asleep), will help to lower my anxiety about it and not drive my boyfriend mad.

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