The Mysterious World of Sleep Disorders
Sleep is still a mystery.
People have driven cars while asleep, swum in lakes, and sustained injuries by throwing themselves from buildings during vivid dreams of fleeing from fire or armed pursuers. They have also eaten crazy food combinations (salt sandwiches, buttered pop cans), had sex with complete strangers without waking up, and shouted wild strings of obscenities despite being mild and well-mannered in the waking state.
Night terrors, sleep paralysis, narcolepsy, sleep-sex and sleepwalking are just some of the parasomnias out there, and all can have upsetting effects on the lives of sufferers and their families. Around four percent of adults sleepwalk, two percent have night terrors, and two percent engage in sleep violence. Sleep disorders, or parasomnias, are therefore quite common, affecting millions of people. Most of them are treatable, but even today they often remain misdiagnosed or unrecognised.
Sadly, there is a lot of shame around these types of sleep behaviours and some people would rather tie themselves to the bed every night to prevent dream enactment rather than go and see their doctor about it. This attitude is understandable if you consider the lack of knowledge some GPs still have about sleep disorders, although things are improving.
Once, I was contacted by a teenager who had jumped from his bedroom window while dreaming. Luckily his window wasn’t high, but he still hurt his foot in the fall. The local doctor refused to believe that it was possible to act out a dream while sleeping, and the boy soon had the entire medical staff questioning him about whether he was suicidal or being violently abused at home. He found this experience distressing, particularly as they seemed not to believe anything he said.
If the GP had been savvier about the range of sleep disorders, he could have referred the boy to a sleep specialist for an expert consultation and subsequent overnight testing in the sleep lab to work out what was going on and provide the necessary support.
A guy I talked to at a wedding years back told me he was having a terrible time as his nightmares were so strong that he was acting them out physically. He told me a story. Once, someone broke into his apartment. He leapt out of bed to attack the intruder, and dragged him across the floor by the hair… but he awoke to his girlfriend’s screams and realised that there had been no intruder: it had been a nightmare, and the person he had dragged across the bedroom was his poor girlfriend. He confided that he was worried she would leave him as she didn’t feel safe sharing a bed with him anymore.
It turned out this guy had a severe case of RBD (REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder). This is usually a manageable condition but requires the attention of a sleep specialist.
This story grabbed my imagination so powerfully that I knew I would write about it. It turned into an entire novel, Dreamrunner. In the novel, apart from exploring the psychological impact that the onset of a violent sleep disorder can have on a family, I was also interested in examining therapeutic responses to such disorders.
It seemed to me that if the origin of a recurrent nightmare is discovered, then the core conflict can often be resolved, and the nightmares then cease. I found myself wondering whether the resolution of the central conflict could potentially eliminate the need for medication in some cases of violent sleep behaviours which involve nightmares.
Techniques such as meditation, self-hypnosis, dream replay or psychotherapy could be beneficial to this process, while lucid dreaming provides a way of penetrating the heart of a nightmare in such a way that the conflict can be resolved in situ.
Lucid dreaming has been shown to be effective in eliminating nightmares. In the novel, I explore the idea that if the dreamer of violent dreams were to become lucid, she or he could then focus on calming down and modifying the extreme dream content so that there would be less impulse to physically act out the nightmare.
If you think you may have a sleep disorder, please contact your nearest sleep centre to get the support you need. A proper consultation with a specialist is worthwhile as there are so many individual differences and people can simultaneously have several sleep disorders. If you’re simply curious about your own sleep habits, here’s a quick sleep disorder quiz designed by the London Sleep Centre.
Questions to Consider
- When we physically act out our dreams, what is left of the distinction between being awake and being asleep?
- Can we be responsible for actions we carry out in the waking world while we are dreaming?
- Who are we when we dream?
In my IASD 2014 Psiberdreaming Conference paper, ‘Who is “the Other” in Sleep Disorders?’ I have a go at answering these questions.