So It Turns Out I'm A Parasomniac

The worst manifestation for me is sleep paralysis, where I'm awake and totally unable to move, speak or scream for what seems like an hour. It's frequently accompanied by hallucinations, which are always of someone entering the room with a view to attacking while I'm paralysed.
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Publish date:
January 22, 2013
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insomnia, sleep talking, Nightmares, hallucinations, Sleep disorders, parasomnia, sleep walking

Last week, when Olivia wrote about under-eye solutions for breakdowns and poor sleeping habits, a discussion in the comments section revealed that many of us are suffering from poor sleeping habits. Not because we cannot sleep, but because while we're sleeping our minds play all kinds of tricks on us.

While researching this piece, I've realised that most of my sleep disorders come under the heading of “Parasomnia”. According to the American National Sleep Foundation:

“The term “parasomnia” refers to all the abnormal things that can happen to people while they sleep, apart from sleep apnea.Some examples are sleep-related eating disorder, sleepwalking, night terrors, sleep paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder, and sleep aggression. Sexsomnia, sometimes called “sleepsex,” is also a parasomnia. It refers to sexual acts that are carried out by a person who is sleeping. Parasomnias can have negative effects on people during the daytime, including sleepiness.”

And back to me…For the record, my parasomnia manifests in a few ways: sleep talking which, you know, doesn't actually disrupt my night but can disturb anyone stuck in the room with me, and has been known to reveal some very odd things about my subconscious.

For example, recently while sound asleep, I told my husband that, “the events were unfortunate and it was only afterwards that I met the Pokemon responsible.” I've still got no idea what that was about but would like to state, for the record, that I never watched Pokemon.

But it could've been worse. Apparently, Sonny divorced Cher after she revealed that she was having an affair in her sleep. Cheating types, beware!

I also suffer from - and this is the worst manifestation of my parasomnia, and the one I'd do anything to stop - sleep paralysis. It's defined as:

“A feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes.”

This, frankly, says nothing of how terrifying an experience it is. Basically, you're awake and totally unable to move, speak or scream for what seems like an hour. It's frequently accompanied by hallucinations, which for me are always of someone entering the room with a view to attacking while I'm paralysed.

That's not the worst though. Some sufferers' hallucinations take the form of “Hag Syndrome”, which makes them feel like someone is sitting on their chest or even choking them.

It's a bitch of a disorder, and one that leaves me shaken up all day after an episode. It can be treated apparently, but not until a patient has suffered from attacks every night for six months.

I was going to end that sentence with an exclamation mark but, frankly, if that scenario ever happens to me I'm more likely to end it with a serious addiction to sleeping tablets. Whatever happens, I certainly will not be starting each day with hallucinations of attackers or an invisible hag sitting on my chest.

One of my uncles, who is not otherwise new agey, gets this and is convinced it's an evil spirit come to attack him. I won't even pretend to try and get on with it.

The good news is though: sleep paralysis isn't dangerous! So that's something for sufferers to muse on next time they're hallucinating through constricted airways and an immovable body.

Finally, and this seemed to be the parasomnia most commenters identified with, I suffer from severe nightmares. That sounds silly, right? I mean, my step-kids don't have nightmares anymore. But yes, nightmares. Terrifying nightmares, and from what I saw in the comments, I'm not the only one.

I'm usually exhausted and it's not from a lack of sleep, so much as a lack of deep sleep. I dream almost all night every night, and I can remember these dreams in vivid, horrific detail.

I won't share the details with people because I worry that if I did, they'd have horrendous dreams of their own, but safe to say the art of Hieronymous Bosch has nothing on my dreamscape.

The effect this has on my daily life is often detrimental. I wake emotionally exhausted, and often still tired because my brain just will not wind the fuck down.

Why is this happening to me?Actually, I've never looked to the skies and asked that question. There is a genetic factor to most parasomnias and, since almost all of my mother's family suffer from sleep paralysis and horrible nightmares, I've always thought it was the way I was made.

There are other factors that can have an impact: high stress levels, certain medications - such as antidepressants - and people with neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, narcolepsy or stroke, are all more likely to suffer from them.

Nightmares are also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, so if you've been through something stressful and it keeps revisiting you in your dreams, try not to worry about it too much. Like the daytime flashbacks that can also characterise the condition, it's just your brain's way of trying to process the experience.

There are parasomnias that occur when a person has abrupt, partial awakenings, such as confusional arousals (when you wake someone and for a few minutes they may seem very confused and stumble as if drunk), sleepwalking, sleep terrors, and sleep-related eating disorder.

Sleep-related hallucinations, such as those I have during sleep paralysis, can also occur as a person is waking up.

When something has got to give…The NHS Choices website doesn't have it's own page for parasomnia, probably because although at least 10% of people suffer from parasomnias, they're still under-diagnosed.

Sleep disorder centres in the UK and Ireland do treat them though so if, like mine, your sleeping mind takes great pleasure in kicking its own arse every night, you shouldn't be shy about going to see your GP about them.

xoJane writer Fem found her own nightmares disappeared when her Doctor checked her thyroid out and got her on the proper medicine. Olivia and I have both had good results from regular massages, acupuncture and yoga practice, and of course, you should be trying to keep your stress levels in check.

For nightmares, there's also the option of therapy. You're not obliged to talk about the contents of your dreams, but there is evidence that talking about the parts of your everyday life that cause stress will improve your general well-being and so reduce nightmares.

So, what about you? Do you have any weird sleep disorders you'd like to share? How about any remedies or treatments? Olivia and I will be eternally grateful, and I may even tweet them @AlisandeF.