You wake up and see that you texted with your boyfriend at 4 a.m. this morning. Yet nothing you wrote makes sense—and you don’t remember sending a word of it (and you weren’t drinking). He’s clearly even more confused, based on his “What???” reply. Looks like you’re a victim of sleep texting, a phenomenon that combines sleepwalking and social media, and that doctors say is threatening the well-being of millions of “textually” active women.
Not limited to texts, people who experience this problem also take to social media, sleep-posting, tweeting, and Instagramming as well, says David Volpi, M.D., a sleep specialist and founder and director of New York City’s Eos Sleep.
Sure, this could lead to confessing about a secret romantic tryst, slamming your boss, or posting sexy snaps you’d otherwise never dream of showing cyberspace, but Dr. Volpi says texting and tweeting while under the influence of your zzzs is also dangerous to your health. “It’s a very real disorder with emotional, mental, and physical consequences like high blood pressure, stress that triggers irregular menstrual cycles and headaches, and even weight gain that can lead to obesity.”
Sleep texting and similar phone- or tablet-related activity is most likely to happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage, which accounts for 90 to 120 minutes of sleep each night and is the portion of sleep when you’re the closest to being awake. It’s also the phase of sleep when dreams occur and is necessary to experience restorative sleep and wake up refreshed.
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“Studies show that the brainwave patterns recorded in this stage are the same as those recorded during the day. So when you’re used to the habit of responding immediately to the steady beeps and blips of a cell phone while you’re awake, the motor nerves seem to act similarly during the REM phase,” says Dr. Volpi, explaining why you’re susceptible to texting during this sleep phase. Those under age 30 may be most vulnerable, he adds, because they’ve grown up in the tech age and their brains are on autopilot when it comes to smartphone stimuli.
Stress can also play a role since it can lead to disrupted sleep or the inability to sleep soundly. “When people are very sleep-deprived, they can wake up for very short periods of time and respond to a verbal conversation, phone call, or a text message, then go back to sleep very quickly,” says Robert Oexman, a chiropractor and director of Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, MO, who conducts studies on sleep and the impact of your sleep environment.
Like drunk texting, though, chances are you won’t remember that you sleep texted when you see what you posted the next morning since you’re not awake long enough to process the memory, he says. The process can last from microseconds to several minutes depending on factors such as your sleep environment, brain chemistry, and the sleep stage you were in when you started to wake up, says David Baratz, M.D., medical director of the Sleep Disorder Lab at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital in Arizona.
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If you suspect you may be sleep texting, melatonin or other sleeping pills won’t help. “Medicine won’t treat this,” Dr. Baratz says. “My best advice is powering down.” That means leave all electronics outside the bedroom to prevent the ding of a text or email from rousing you during sleep.
If you use your phone as an alarm or must have electronics by your side, attempt to place them far from your bed. Creating a consistent sleep schedule will also alert your body that it’s time to shut down, making it easier to achieve a restful sleep and keep those thumbs idle.