There’s that moment when you’ve just woken up and your dream felt so real that you briefly wonder if (or wish) it actually happened. The majority of us quickly realise it didn’t – how could it when you’re safely tucked up in bed? However, the estimated 2% of adults who sleepwalk can’t always be so sure.
Like most millennials, Amy, 26, is a big texter who rarely actually talks to friends or family on her phone. "In fact, I actively avoid it – my missed call list is proof of that – if they really want me they will text, is how I see it. The problem is, as someone who has sleepwalked for most of my life, I often find I text people while I’m sleeping. I write totally coherent sentences, but the topics can often be random (for them at least). I’ve texted friends about issues that have bothered me, things that I’d decided I wasn’t going to bring up to avoid possible conflict, only to then let loose over text. The aftermath of that is never fun. Then there was the morning I thought I’d dreamt sending a flirty text to a co-worker, only to discover I actually had. I concocted an ‘I was drunk and texted the wrong number’ story to get out of it, but couldn’t look him in the eye after that. I’ve tried leaving my phone in another room when I go to sleep, but I simply ‘sleepwalk’ to retrieve it – so I’ve had to tell friends about my nocturnal texting, just in case they receive an odd message from me. The only issue now is I have to convince them I’m actually awake if I purposely send a text late at night."
This isn’t that unusual. It is possible to carry out very complex activities like texting during sleepwalking episodes, explains sleep expert Dr. Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director of the London Sleep Centre. "Sleepwalking is a broad term for what is actually a disturbance to the steady brainwave patterns we experience when we are in deep non-REM (non-dreaming) sleep. This disturbance leads to an arousal that doesn’t wake sleepwalkers up but induces a sleepwalking episode."
Having the urge to switch on all the lights in the house can be harmless, albeit irritating for people trying to sleep, but finding yourself half-naked on a walk in the middle of the night can be pretty scary, as makeup artist Lucinda, 29, can attest.
I’ve begun to sleepwalk again and this time I’m more worried than ever.
"I used to sleepwalk as a child but I couldn’t ever remember what I’d done, and for the most part my parents found it quite amusing. They weren’t laughing much when I went through the stage of walking into their bedroom convinced it was the loo and peeing on the carpet every night, though. That only lasted a few months; apparently the only other thing I would do was sit up in bed and have conversations with people who weren’t there. Fast-forward 20 years and I’ve begun to sleepwalk again, and this time I’m more worried than ever. A few months ago, I walked out of my flat, got in the lift, exited my building and started strolling down the road. Luckily I had a friend staying over who thought she had heard the door open and close, and when she realised I wasn’t in bed next to her she did a quick sweep of the flat and discovered I was gone. Thankfully I hadn’t gone far at this point so she spotted me out of the window, threw on some clothes and came outside to ask what I was doing. I told her I was going to work, and got quite agitated when she insisted I go back to bed. The next day things started to fall into place. I’d done this before but woken up and run back to the flat, not mentioning it to anyone because it had always happened when I had drunk a lot and I didn’t want a lecture. Now that I’ve realised alcohol triggers these ‘dramatic’ sleepwalking episodes I’ve decided to curb my weekend drinking, for fear that I could bump into the wrong person or walk into the road the next time it happens."
The embarrassment and confusion surrounding sleepwalking means that, like Lucinda, many people don’t seek help or talk about their experiences with others. Lorraine, 45, can relate. As a regular sleepwalker, she had never experienced night terrors until she and her two children were involved in a car accident.
"Both night terrors and sleepwalking fall under the umbrella of parasomnia (sleep behavioural disorder), in which the subject reacts to a perceived threat. Screaming, crying and thrashing around in bed are common but so too are violent acts to oneself in a bid to ‘escape’ or to others in an attempt to ‘protect’ oneself," explains Dr. Ebrahim.
"For years after the accident I would sit up in bed, heart pumping, arms out, with my hands clenched around an imaginary steering wheel as if I were driving," says Lorraine. "I’d then attempt to perform an emergency break to stop us from having a collision. I’d wake up at this moment every time, sweat dripping off me, often with my husband looking on, not knowing what to do. Even after I got rid of the car we had the accident in, I still experienced these night terrors. I’d often attempt to leave the house and get into the car and actually drive, which was incredibly scary, so my husband would have to hide the car keys and leave me a note telling me where I could find them. I never spoke to anyone outside of my family about what was happening to me, and so it wasn’t until my children got a little older that my general protective anxiety subsided, and so did the night terrors. Much to their amusement I’m still sleepwalking but my fixation with driving is no longer an issue."
This makes total sense to Dr. Ebrahim, who cites stress as a major precursor to sleepwalking: "There can also be a genetic predisposition to sleepwalking, however, stress, sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, and obstructive sleep apnoea, seizures, and restless leg syndrome can cause more frequent episodes." In order to prevent sleepwalking, you first have to figure out if your disturbed sleep is caused by an underlying medical condition; if so, treating said condition should stop the bouts of sleepwalking. "If stress, lack of sleep or alcohol are your triggers, stress management techniques and lifestyle changes should be implemented," he advises.
For years after the accident I would sit up in bed, heart pumping, arms out, with my hands clenched around an imaginary steering wheel as if I were driving.
First off, look out for patterns in your sleepwalking episodes. When do you sleepwalk most: after a night out drinking, after an argument with your partner or when you’ve not slept much the night before? Identifying your triggers can help you avoid them. Improving your sleeping habits in general is also a good place to start. Aim for a minimum of eight hours, and ditch devices before bed as the blue light they emit energises the brain, which you don’t want when you’re attempting to power down. Keep your bedroom dark and cool, have a warm bath, or try 10 minutes of meditation before getting into bed. Orgasms can help too, as the 'love hormone' oxytocin (which increases during climax) aids sleep. If simple lifestyle changes don’t do the trick, medication may help.
"Antidepressants were the only thing that helped with my verbally abusive sleepwalking episodes," says lawyer Abina, 33. "My boyfriend and I have been together for five years, and for the last three I’ve spent at least one night a week calling him every name under the sun, shouting and screaming at him, accusing him of cheating on me or lying to me – none of which I remember in the morning. It wasn’t until he filmed me one night and I watched it back the next day that I realised how bad it was. I’ve never had any issues with my sleep before, but I do work in an incredibly stressful profession and as I’ve progressed in my field the nightly abuse has gotten worse. We live in a one-bedroom flat so I have tried sleeping on the sofa to see if not being next to each other would keep him out of the line of fire, but I end up waking up in bed the next day and discover I’ve gone into our room, had a go at him, then gone to sleep. It put a major strain on our relationship, surprisingly more for me than for him. He refused to tell me what I would say each night because he didn’t want me to feel bad about it, but that just made me more anxious and worried. I tried sleep-inducing foods, meditation and sleep sprays in an attempt to sleep more deeply but when those didn’t work I went to see a specialist, who prescribed me an antidepressant that increases my serotonin levels and has helped with my overall anxiety and my abusive sleepwalking."