Sleep walking and sleep talking are categorized as parasomnias, or strange behaviors that happen when a person is partially awake during sleep. Both sleep walking and sleep talking are classified as sleep disorders, commonly occur a few hours after a person falls asleep, and occur between stage 3 and 4 of non—rapid eye movement sleep. Sleep walking and sleep talking are more common in individuals who possess co-occurring sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or insomnia, and tend to run heavily in families. But, what causes this to happen? Is there a connection to mental health disorders?
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, occurs when an individual is in a very deep sleep and usually lasts less than 10 minutes. A person’s brain is partially awake and partially asleep while they are sleep walking and normally have no awareness of what is occurring. Generally, they also have little to no recollection of a sleep walking incident the morning after it occurred. Under normal circumstances, the body releases a brain chemical, GABA, which prevents sleepwalking by paralyzing the body’s skeletal muscles. When GABA does not work, the muscles are not paralyzed and a person is able to walk, engage in movement, and execute intricate behaviors during sleep. Sleepwalking tends to commonly occur in children and peaks between the ages of 8 and 12.
Sleep talking, or somniloquy occurs more frequently in children and happens during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. Adults are most likely to talk in their sleep if they are having a nightmare or are intoxicated. Sleep talking occurs more frequently in boys than girls and usually resolves itself by the age of 12.
It turns out that there is a linkage between sleep walking, sleep talking, and mental health conditions. Several mental health disorders can cause sleep walking and sleep talking and hinder a person’s ability to have a good night’s sleep. Sleep related difficulties are especially prevalent in those who experience nightmares, night terrors, or who have other sleeping issues. They are also common in those who have depression, anxiety, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or schizophrenia. Individuals that have neurological issues or traumatic brain injuries can also have an increased frequency of sleeping disorders.
Some medications have been linked to sleep walking and sleep talking. Individuals that are prescribed SSRI’s for anxiety and depression may increase sleep walking behaviors. People who are prescribed over-the-counter sleep medications or sleep hypnotic medications, such as Ambien or Lunesta, can also experience sleep walking and other odd nighttime behaviors.
People with substance abuse issues commonly talk or walk in their sleep, as drugs and alcohol can cause sleep walking and sleep talking behaviors. Individuals experiencing drug or alcohol withdrawal may also experience an increase in these nighttime behaviors.
Therapy can usually help to resolve sleep walking and sleep talking when there is an underlying mental health condition. Therapy can educate how to create a healthy sleep environment and help people to set goals in order to achieve better sleep. Individuals are encouraged to avoid sleep deprivation, to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, and to control their sleep environment to avoid unnecessary awakenings from pets, noises, or lights. Since stress often plays a role in sleep walking and sleep talking, relaxation and stress relieving activities are also encouraged to decrease the risk of these nighttime behaviors from occurring.
Therapy can assist people in dealing with the challenges of sleep talking and sleep walking, as it can cause psychological distress and interfere with several areas of a person’s life. Sleeping issues can impact relationships and the family as a whole. Parents may suffer sleep deprivation when their child sleep walks and siblings may be fearful of it occurring, especially if they share a bedroom with their sleep walking sibling. When an adult walks or talks in their sleep, it can prompt sleeping issues in their partner and potentially cause relationship problems. A person’s career may suffer if they are perpetually tired and unable to fulfill their job responsibilities.
So yes, while there are many circumstances that can cause a person to sleep walk and sleep talk, mental health conditions are definitely one of them.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.