Sleepwalking, talking, and other abnormal sleep behaviors are all categorized under a sleep condition called parasomnia.
Most, if not all, of us can name a person who sleep talks or walks—whether that’s ourselves or a friend, partner, or family member. In fact, most of us will sleep talk at least once in our lives, making it the most common abnormal sleep behavior—also called a parasomnia.
Parasomnia is a term that is used to describe any sleep disorder that causes an individual to exhibit abnormal behaviors—including sleep talking and walking.While parasomnias have historically been considered mental health disorders, modern research has revealed that parasomnias happen when our brains transition from being asleep to being awake and during sleep cycle transitions.
What are the types of parasomnias?
Parasomnias can be categorized into two specific groups, NREM-related and REM-related. Some parasomnias fall within an undefined group—we’ll call this group “Other Parasomnias.”
NREM stands for non-rapid eye movement and constitutes stages 1-4 of our sleep cycle. Each NREM cycle, during healthy sleep, lasts for approximately 90 minutes.
Most NREM-related parasomnias are considered disorders of arousal. The symptoms of disorders of arousal include: recurrent episodes of incomplete awakening, limited responsiveness, and limited awareness. Most people who experience a disorder of arousal have little to no memory of their episode.
NREM-related disorders of arousal include:
- Sleep walking
- Night terrors
- Sexsomnia: Occurs when an individual demonstrates abnormal and/or typical sexual behaviors during sleep.
- Sleep-related eating disorder: Dysfunctional eating while having little arousal/awareness of what’s going on.
- Elpenor syndrome: Also known as confusional arousals, Elpenor syndrome happens when a person exhibits confused behaviors in bed. Physical symptoms that indicate Elpenor syndrome include dilated pupils and an accelerated heartbeat and breathing.
REM stands for rapid eye movement and is the fifth stage of the sleep cycle. During REM sleep, individuals will experience faster breathing in addition to their heart rate and blood pressure increasing. Dreams generally happen during the REM state of sleep.
REM-related parasomnias include:
- Sleep paralysis
- Nightmare disorder: Experiencing recurrent, vivid nightmares, beyond the typical nightmares or dreams experienced in healthy sleep. This disorder can impact day-to-day life for sufferers, causing fatigue, sleep deprivation, and feelings of distress. PTSD and psychosocial stressors are often attributed to nightmare disorder.
- REM sleep-behavior disorder (RSBD): During RSBD, an individual will experience unusual vocalizations or movements that are most likely in reaction to a dream they are having. Unlike other parasomnias, which are most commonly seen in children/adolescents, RSBD is most common in people aged 50 or older.
- Sensory sleep starts: Also known as exploding head syndrome, sensory sleep starts cause people to hear a loud noise, feel an explosion sensation in their head, and at times, see a flash of light when waking up. While painless, a person will often feel psychological distress. Multiple episodes of sensory sleep starts can happen in a single night.
- Sleep related hallucinations: A condition that causes individuals to either hallucinate while falling asleep or while waking up.
The above list of parasomnias are simply those that are the most common, but there are many other parasomnias that an individual can experience. Having trouble with your sleep? Partners, roommates, and family members noticing you experiencing abnormal behaviors during sleep? It may be time to reach out to a sleep specialist.
Dr. Dibra here at Sleep Dallas is a board-certified sleep medicine specialist who specializes in treating and managing sleep disorders. Schedule your consultation today.