Parasomnia: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options
Sleep is one of those things we all desperately want to get enough of, but many of us rarely do. Lots of things can prevent a good night’s sleep – everything from insomnia to anxiety to a newborn baby to the decrease in melatonin as we age to sleep apnea.
But something else is keeping many people from optimal rest: parasomnia.
Sometimes our brains make us do strange things while we are asleep. Perhaps you walk to the kitchen and eat a sandwich without ever waking up. Or maybe you wake up screaming and flailing in fear for no apparent reason. Or maybe you are even violent with your partner while you are asleep.
These and a wide array of other odd sleeping behaviors are parasomnias. And they can make your sleep (and your partner’s sleep) a real problem.
But you’re not alone. Somewhere around 10% of Americans have parasomnias.
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Though you could experience them at any age, children are normally the biggest sufferers. This is because their branis are not fully matured and developed. Normally these kids can grow out of the parasomnia behaviors as they get older.
What exactly are they? What causes them? And most importantly, what can you do about them? Let’s learn more.
What Are Parasomnias?
Parasomnia is a group name for a large variety of sleep disorders that disrupt your sleep in some way.
Everybody’s different. They may happen to you right as you fall asleep. Or it may be much later into the night. It may happen all the time; it may happen rarely. Some people are fully asleep when the parasomnia hits; others are slightly awakened.
Not only can these be frustrating and tiring for the person experiencing them, they can also be exhausting for the person who shares a bed with them. It’s for both of these people that learning more about parasomnia and figuring out how to treat them is so important.
Symptoms of Parasomnias
Parasomnia is not one singular thing, so there is not a common set of symptoms. Every parasomnia leads to different behaviors.
Below is a list of common parasomnias and what you can expect with each. There are other parasomnias out there. So if you or your partner notices some strange bedtime/sleeping behaviors, just go to your doctor for a sleep study and diagnosis.
- Sleep walking: This is not only limited to walking, but also performing even complex behaviors like driving a car
- Night Terrors: This is a time of intense fear and often includes screaming or flailing; your fight or flight system goes into effect and you feel terrified
- REM Sleep Behavior Disorder: This is when you enact your dreams, but it is often harmful and even dramatic behavior
- Nightmare Disorder: Everyone has a nightmare sometimes, but those with this disorder have them frequently, sometimes multiple times in the same night; these often leave you scared and awake
- Sleep Paralysis: This is when you won’t be able to move your body from a few seconds to even a minutes
- Sleep Aggression: Sometimes a person can be very violent while they are asleep
- Sleep Talking: This one is less problematic for the person doing it, and more problematic for the bed partner who has to listen to it while they are trying to sleep
- Bedwetting: We often think of this as a child only parasomnia, but adults experience it too; often it is a sign of another health condition like diabetes or prostate issues, so see your doctor
- Sexomnia: When you perform sexual acts while asleep
- Exploding Head Syndrome: This one isn’t as violent as it sounds; people with this parasomnia will “hear” very loud sounds like a bomb going off or a gunshot when they are either just falling asleep or waking up
- Nocturnal Sleep-Related Eating Disorder: This is when you eat in the middle of the night without any recollection of it the next morning; often weight gain follows
- Teeth Grinding: This is when you move your jaw back and forth while you sleep and grind your teeth against each other; this is often quite painful when you wake up
You probably won’t have many other symptoms other than fatigue, exhaustion, and stress from your lack of solid sleep in the night.
What Causes Parasomnias?
So why do some people experience parasomnias? What’s the cause? There are actually quite a few reasons they happen to people. Here is a short list of some of the potential causes:
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- Genetics (these parasomnias definitely run in families)
- Brain disorders
- Sleep Apnea
- Substance abuse
- You could also just be stressed and tired
- You may need to improve your sleeping habits
- You may have PTSD
- Or the cause could be unknown
If your parasomnia seems very weird, you may begin to worry if you have a psychiatric disorder. But rest assured. It’s extremely rare that parasomnias actually have anything to do with psychiatric problems.
The important thing is to understand everything you can about your specific parasomnia episodes. The only way to do that is to visit your doctor. Often they will have you do a sleep study overnight to see if they can learn anything.
Parasomnia Treatment Options
These parasomnias can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting for those who deal with them on any sort of regular basis. What can be done about them?
Here are 6 treatment options you have available to you. Anybody with any parasomnia can start the process of trying all of them today.
1. Improve Your Sleeping Habits
Sleep experts recommend checking your sleep habits to ensure you do everything in your power to set yourself up for a restful night.
These following tips are important for any person, but they are vital for someone with a parasomnia disorder.
- Go to bed at the same time every night
- Wake up at the same time every morning
- Get rid of any screens in your bedroom
- Play a white noise machine/app
If you are a shift worker, finding a new job with a regular 9 to 5 (or similar) schedule may be important. I know that seems like a big adjustment, but regular sleep is essential.
2. Gain Control of Your Stress Levels
Many times these parasomnias are directly connected to stress and anxiety in your life. Of course, you should do everything in your power to remove causes of high stress (like a toxic relationship, a bad job, or debt). Then you should add these de-stressing practices into your life:
- Exercise: This is one of the top ways to both manage your stress and improve your sleep. Just make sure you aren’t doing it right before bed. It will rev you up and make it harder to sleep. Shoot for morning or early afternoon workouts.
- Meditation: Something as simple as 5 to 15 minutes a day of focusing on your breath or following along to a guided meditation on YouTube or an app can dramatically lower your stress; you can even do a second meditation right before bed.
- Talk therapy: Talk therapy is a wonderful solution for learning how to deal with the difficult things in your life; the coping skills you learn in therapy can have a direct effect on your parasomnia
- Relaxing Essential Oils: Try diffusing calming essential oils in your bedroom before you go to sleep and throughout the night. My favorites are lavender, frankincense, bergamot, and cedarwood.
3. Talk To Your Doctor About Prescription Drugs
There is not just one go-to medicine for parasomnia. There are lots of different medications that could help. And there are lots of medications that could help the other issues leading you to parasomnia.
You could be given antidepressants, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines, or alpha-blockers to name a few. They may recommend cognitive therapy or desensitization treatments.
Of course, there are often drawbacks to sleep-related drugs. Sometimes there can be dependency and grogginess. So make sure you do your own research and feel confident about the decision.
You can always try all your non-medication treatment options first to see if you find help in that way… which brings us to our 4th option.
4. Try An All-Natural Sleep Aid
Taking an all-natural sleep aid is really helpful for making sure you get a full night’s rest.
Great ingredients to look for include:
- Melatonin: This is the brain chemical that helps us with our circadian rhythm
- Magnesium: Many people are deficient in this mineral that helps calm the body and mind and improve sleep quality
- Valerian Root: This herb is known for its mild sedative effects
- Magnolia Bark Extract: This is another herb known for its mild sedative effects
- Chamomile Flower Extract: We already know that chamomile is extremely calming and soothing, since we see it in virtually all sleep-time teas
5. Watch What You Consume
Alcohol and drugs can definitely exacerbate these parasomnia issues.
You should stop any drug use immediately. Seek medical help if you are struggling to quit. And until your parasomnia is under control, you should also give up alcohol. Talk to your doctor about whether you should add in moderate alcohol again at some point.
Also, try cutting back on the caffeine during the day.
6. Put Up Any Safety Measures
If you are doing something dangerous like sleep walking, you will need to make sure you are safe throughout the night.
Add extra locks to your door or windows to make it harder to get out of the house while you are sleeping. Never leave things on the floor so you don’t trip over them while you are walking around.
Discuss your diagnosis with family members in the home so they know how to respond to your parasomnia. For example, waking up a sleepwalker is important. Or they need to know what to do if you come to them with sleep aggression while you are sleeping.
Getting Help For Your Parasomnia
The first thing you need to do – if you haven’t done so already – is visit your doctor. They can give you an accurate diagnosis, possibly find a cause, and then offer specific treatment instructions for your specific sleep disorder.
Then you need to start some of the lifestyle changes mentioned above.
Getting a handle on these parasomnias is absolutely possible. This means a restful night’s sleep can absolutely be in your future!