‘What’s goin’ on mate?’: My quest to overcome 23 years of sleep talking

It’s 3am. A normal Tuesday night. My housemates are asleep, all is quiet and dark; no one stirs. Except, apparently, me. My 23-year-long sleep talking problem was never something that bothered me, but that was until I started recording my nocturnal monologues and heard the kind of things I was saying. Such as tonight’s snippet, in which my normal cheery voice is replaced by some kind of hoarse monster from Paranormal Activity. “Why are you dead?” I snap, in the actual dead of night. It was – if you’ll excuse the pun – a bit of a wakeup call. 

As I say, my sleep talking was generally something I was at peace with. My school reports said I nattered all day, so it made sense that I did the same thing at night. Plus, it seemed to be a crowd-pleaser when I told everyone about my fun fact in the pub. But it perhaps isn’t so peaceful, or funny, for the other people. In September, my best friend and I visited New York for seven nights, where we shared a double room to keep costs low. Apparently, I talked non-stop all night – but not to her; she was trying to sleep. Not only were we both jet lagged, but when my friend had tried to sleep, she couldn’t because Ellie Big Mouth Muir over here wouldn’t put a sock in it. And then there was that awkward time I muttered “I love you” to a guy I’d started dating, which was way too early to be dropping the L bomb.

What on earth was going on? I needed answers for the sake of my – and my friends – sanity. I enlist the help of psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) who specialises in mindfulness and sleep disorders. “Sleep talking tends to be genetic, so it can often run in families,” Darwall-Smith tells me in our first session. “It’s most common in children, and they tend to grow out of it. We don’t 100 per cent know what’s going on. It’s generally perceived as a harmless sleep disorder unless it’s happening at the same time as other sleep disorders.”

But it appears I’m not the only adult who hasn’t grown out of sleep talking. According to a 2010 study conducted in the US, 66 per cent of people will sleep talk in their lives, and 17 per cent of people will have experienced it in the last three months – but it’s much rarer for someone to continue to sleep talk throughout their life, like I do.

Since we’ve established sleep talking is not necessarily a harmful condition or one that requires medical treatment, Darwall-Smith’s first question to me is: why do I want to make it stop? Well firstly, I’d like to keep my friends. I quite like them. Second – I don’t want to terrify the future loves of my life. And also… if I’m continuously talking all the time, is my mind actually getting any rest?

I knew that the first step before I spoke to Darwall-Smith would be to hear my sleep talking for myself – hence why I began to record it every night on my phone. But playing them back, I notice a pattern. I’m forming pretty coherent sentences, and having back-and-forth conversations with the characters in my dreams. Aside from the rather spooky “Why are you dead?” recording, on other nights, I sound a bit more chipper: I’m having a pleasant conversation with someone about their cat. “Awwwww! She’s so cute,” I say. In another, I seem to be striking up an argument with a group of lads in the pub when I say: “What goin’ on, mate?” Then there’s another voice recording where I’m talking about a man that loves to wear his mother’s lipstick. The contents of my nighttime sermons are admittedly strange – but it’s all conversational.

I tell all of this to Darwall-Smith, who asks me if I clench or grit my teeth in the night. I do. But, although I used to sleepwalk as a child, these days I don’t move when I sleep talk. She explains that our dreams are often a rehearsal space for the brain. My sleep talking, she tells me, “sounds like a stress response” – it’s almost like I’m practising and preparing for the conversations I might have in the coming days. “[The brain] sort of takes in the content and mashes it about and you tend to try stuff out, as if you were rehearsing. One of the things that’s so incredible about sleep is the functionality of learning and memory and it’s almost like our conscious minds have gone offline so that our brain can then start to make sense of it.”

Darwall-Smith reminds me that while it might seem like an annoying habit, I should celebrate the fact that my brain is working overtime to assist me in sorting through my thoughts. “You said it can be annoying in many ways, but isn’t it brilliant that your brain is trying to help you sort it out?” She helps me try to change my perspective on sleep talking as a “bad” or “annoying” habit. She asks me to look inward about why I’m embarrassed about people hearing me. “Rather than worrying about it and feeling guilty about what is happening, thinking about it differently can help switch the relationship,” she reminds me.

The psychotherapist assures me that I’m “quite safe” and reminds me that sleep talking is regarded as a pretty harmless sleep disorder. “No one can stop you from doing it. It’s really important to know that we generally see sleep talking as harmless, it can be a nuisance to the people we might sleep with, it’s not typically something that’s treated unless it’s linked to another disorder.”  

Still though, to give my brain a helping hand, Darwall-Smith recommends trying some exercises to help regulate some of the activity that is expressing itself in my dreams. The plan is that I can offload some of my worries. There’s the sleep diary where I record everything from the hours I am sleeping to the state of my sleep. In another exercise, called “Box up those thoughts”, I write down my thoughts on a piece of paper and put them in an empty shoebox. The exercise that I find the most beneficial, though, involves setting a timer for 10 minutes and writing down every worry that’s on my mind until the timer stops. “It’s about putting the thoughts somewhere consciously in the notebook so you can tell the brain: I’ve got this and know where it is and can always go back to it when I need to,” says Darwall-Smith. “There are, of course, lots of different things we can do to reduce the stress, to train the brain to behave in a different way and also different ways of processing the material. But it’s about acknowledging those thoughts first.”

Over the three weeks of recording my sleep talking, there is one night when I don’t speak at all. I seem to be succeeding in quietening my chatty mind. I get into the habit of blitzing down my worries in a 10-minute time slot in the evenings, especially on nights when I feel particularly stressed. It makes me feel more in control of my thoughts, and hopefully means less work for my brain.

But does all this journalling directly translate into less sleep talking? It’s hard to tell, though my more recent recordings sound less like a horror film. Instead, I’ve heard myself giggling, cracking jokes or having lighthearted conversations with my (imaginary) friends during my sleep; my sleep-talking self seems to be more content. Plus, I don’t have to worry about whether I’ve unknowingly slagged someone off while they’re lying beside me.

Most of all, though, I’ve learnt that there’s no shame in being a sleep talker. If anything, I’m pretty proud of my brain helping me sift through my worries. So, for anyone sharing my bed in future, I’ll pass them some earplugs – because it’s 3am, and my brain has got some sorting to do.

Isn’t it brilliant that your brain is trying to help you sort it out?

Heather Darwall-Smith


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