Whether they’re mumbling gibberish or holding entire conversations, we’ve all heard a person talking in their sleep. Sleep talkers can be both annoying and hilarious, depending on the situation. But if you’re talking in your sleep loudly and regularly, it could be a sign of another, more serious sleep problem — especially when it’s associated with fright, confusion, or additional strange behavior.
So why do people talk in their sleep? Read on to learn more about the causes of sleep talking, plus how it can be overcome.
Why Do People Talk in Their Sleep?
Sleep talking is a sleep disorder known as somniloquy. People who experience this condition can mumble or speak in coherent sentences, and what they say can sometimes relate to past experiences or be associated with the sleeper’s dream. While anyone can talk in their sleep at any time, it’s most common in young children and men.
Causes of Somniloquy
According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are many reasons a person might talk in their sleep. One of the main causes of sleep talking is stress. Since sleep is a time when people’s brains work through daily stresses and challenges, sleep talking could be a side effect of processing these emotions.
For similar reasons, depression is another common cause of somniloquy. Other causes of sleep talking include alcohol and substance abuse, as these can lead the mind into altered states. People who have a fever or who are generally sleep deprived are more likely to talk in their sleep than healthy, rested people.
A person who talks in their sleep isn’t aware of what they’re saying, so the words themselves aren’t usually a cause of harm to that person or their partner. Yet talking loudly or shouting can rouse a person from their sleep and cause confusion and grogginess. A person’s sleep talking can also disrupt their partner, causing frustration and sleep deprivation.
Parasomnias and Somniloquy
Talking in your sleep once in awhile is normal, but it’s important to be aware of other conditions that can coexist with sleep talking. Parasomnias are a range of unconscious behaviors and activities that a person can engage in while sleeping. Many people who have one of these sleep disorders often have another, and they can be disruptive both to the sleeper and to their family members and loved ones.
Sleep is divided into two stages: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. REM is the stage of sleep associated with dreaming — brain activity is similar to that of wakefulness — yet the body’s natural paralysis function keeps the person anchored to their bed. In contrast, people don’t usually dream when in NREM sleep stages.
Parasomnias associated with sleep talking can be divided into two categories: REM or NREM sleep disorders. Here’s a look at the most common REM and NREM parasomnias associated with somniloquy.
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is a medical condition in which the ordinary paralysis functions don’t work properly, and a person acts out their dreams physically. This REM sleep disorder can involve kicking, yelling, sleep talking, sleep shouting, jumping, and grabbing. REM sleep behavior disorder can happen to anyone, but it’s also a common side-effect of withdrawal from alcohol or certain drugs, such as prescriptions used to treat depression.
Sleep paralysis is an REM-related sleep disorder that causes a person to feel temporarily paralyzed upon waking. Episodes can last a few seconds to a few minutes and generally leave a person feeling anxious and scared. “During sleep paralysis, paradoxically, our brains — or parts of our brains — become awake and conscious, but the rest of the body is still immobilized,” explains medical writer Maria Cohut.
Sleep paralysis can be associated with intruder hallucinations, in which the awakened sleeper senses a presence in the room. Reports of demon figures, shadowy men, or a general sense of evil are common. Incubus hallucinations are also common, in which a person feels another pressing down on them. Lastly, vestibular-motor hallucinations can accompany sleep paralysis. These are a type of dream where someone visualizes themselves floating, flying, and having an out-of-body experience.
Sleep walking, clinically known as somnambulism, is a condition where a person conducts normal everyday activities while sleeping. Sleepwalkers tend not to have any memory of what they did the night before, which can be confusing for family members.
Contrary to popular belief that it occurs as a result of dreaming, sleepwalking is most often a non-REM disorder. People of all ages can be prone to sleepwalking, yet it’s most commonly seen in young children. It’s also another condition that tends to run in families, so parents who sleep walked as children should be cognizant of the same potential disorder in their own kids.
While sleepwalking isn’t dangerous in itself, it may cause people to put themselves into dangerous situations unknowingly. Someone exhibiting signs of persistent sleepwalking should see a sleep specialist in order to understand and reduce instances of this behavior.
Confusional arousals, also known as sleep drunkenness, occur when a person behaves strangely seemingly after waking. They may seem confused, disoriented, and unable to articulate their thoughts. Confusional arousals most commonly occur when a person wakes up while transitioning from deep sleep (the third stage of sleep) to a lighter sleep stage, making it an NREM sleep disorder.
Children are more likely to experience confusional arousals, which may be due to the release of growth hormones during slow-wave sleep. Additionally, people who do shift work or who suffer from excessive stress or worry are more likely to experience confusional arousals. Sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption or bipolar disorder can all cause a person to wake up feeling confused and uncertain of their surroundings.
Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are an arousal disorder where a person wakes abruptly from NREM sleep screaming, crying, or otherwise scared and terrified. This state of fright is usually accompanied by increased heart rate, excessive sweating, rapid breathing, and skin flushing.
People who wake up with night terrors tend to be confused and unable to communicate normally. They may simply sit up in bed, or they may get up and walk around. Yet the next day, they tend not to remember what happened.
Night terrors are most common in children between ages three and 12, but they also occur in about 3% of adults. Adults who experience strong emotional stress or psychological turmoil are more prone to night terrors. This sleep disorder tends to be genetic and run in families.
Sleep Eating Disorder
Sleep Eating Disorder is characterized by waking in the middle of the night and eating excessively with partial to no memory of the incident the next day. People with this disorder tend to engage in heavy meals and combinations which would normally be undesirable.
People have been known to eat a wide variety of foods, including toxic or non-food substances like cleaner, paint, and toiletry products. Sleep eating disorder is rare and can lead to depression and other psychiatric disorders. In addition to feeling ill and having stomach cramps upon waking, sleep eating disorder can cause daytime drowsiness both from lack of sleep and overconsumption of heavy foods.
How to Stop Talking in Your Sleep
Whether you sleep talk once in awhile or you’re constantly waking in a fright, maintaining good sleep hygiene can ensure you maintain a more consistent sleep schedule.
Aside from going to bed at the same time each night, engaging in stress management practices during the day can help you quell some of the fear and anxiety that might be causing your sleep disruptions. Moreover, investing in a white noise machine or putting locks on your doors or cabinets can help you sleep better and prevent any major accidents from occurring if you sleepwalk.
Another tactic is to track your sleep with a sleep tracker. This can help you see what time you wake up during the night, especially if you’re prone to waking and not remembering. This data can be helpful if you see a sleep doctor or want to go for polysomnography. This is a sleep test used to diagnose specific sleep disorders. It records your brain waves, blood oxygen level, heart rate, breathing patterns, and eye movements.
Polysomnography tests can also be used to help devise a treatment plan for someone who’s already been diagnosed with a sleep disorder. People with sleep disorders, unexplained behavior during sleep, or unexplained insomnia may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist for this kind of test.
How to Overcome Talking in Your Sleep
Talking in your sleep is a disorder that many people face. Yet, it can be accompanied by potentially more serious sleep disorders like sleep walking and sleep eating. Psychological distress can also occur in tandem with sleep disorders, especially for people who already struggle with depression and anxiety.
Night terrors and confusional arousals can make a person feel extremely afraid or disoriented during the night, and this can also be disruptive to their partner. Knowing about the different kinds of sleep disorders and making a point to see a sleep specialist can reduce instances of parasomnias to help you rest better.