Shopping in your sleep? The strange new parasomnia

Sleep-shopping, sleep-texting, sleep-tweeting and sleep-emailing are, apparently, all growing phenomena.
Marcelo Santos

Sleep-shopping, sleep-texting, sleep-tweeting and sleep-emailing are, apparently, all growing phenomena.

Possibly the strangest thing about the online purchases made by Megan Sellers in her sleep is that they are so well considered.

Take the Ksubi sunglasses she bought the first time she sleep-shopped – they were both tasteful and an exceptionally good buy at $80, down from $280. Before committing to the purchase, the 30-year-old Aucklander even Googled pictures of celebrities wearing the shades to check how they looked in-situ.

The fly in the ointment, of course, was that Sellers, a breakfast host on radio station ZM, was not in the market for shades but merely a good night's sleep.

"I remember waking in the middle of the night briefly, but I don't remember picking up my phone," she says. "In the morning there was a picture of sunglasses open on my phone, then when I checked my email there was an email confirmation saying I'd purchased some Ksubi sunglasses."

A few months later she woke to another receipt in her inbox. This time she had been sleep-shopping for clothes and bought two tasteful tops.

Sellers, whose voice swings between a slight sheepishness and impressed awe at her night-time talents, is one of the growing number of people reporting very modern sleep disorders. As well as sleep-shopping, sleep-texting, sleep-tweeting and sleep-emailing are, apparently, all growing phenomena.

Megan Sellers - serial sleep shopper.

Indeed, when Sellers mentioned her nocturnal purchases on air, ZM's phones started ringing and texts flowed in. There was the listener who had sleep-purchased pillowcases decorated with labrador faces, and the one who had inexplicably forked out for a tarpaulin.

There was Sam, whose boyfriend had banned her from keeping her laptop in the bedroom after one too many sleep-shopping sprees, and there was poor, miffed Courtney who, in the early hours one morning, spent all of her $700 budget for a week-long holiday in Australia on one night's Sydney accommodation.

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They are in famous company. Glee star Chris Colfer is a sleep-shopper and, unfortunately, his usual taste doesn't extend to his night-time purchases. The 20-year-old actor, who plays Kurt Hummel on the hit TV show, has bought a life-size poster of Lady Gaga, the complete series of the Carol Burnett Show and a huge, framed portrait of Marie Antoinette.

Colfer always has the option of discussing his sleep disorder with recurring Glee guest star and long-time Broadway leading lady Kristin Chenoweth.

The actor, who suffers from insomnia, took the sleeping medication zolpidem (often known by the brand name Ambien) one night and the following day when she appeared at a movie premiere, reporters asked, "When does the adoption go through?" She had tweeted that she was adopting a baby from Haiti. She wasn't.

Kristen Chenoweth.

The use of technology during sleep was first documented in 2009, when a team led by US-based neurologist and sleep specialist Dr Fouzia Siddiqui published a case report of a woman who sent emails at night. It was the first time Dr Siddiqui had seen a patient carry out such a complex task while asleep.

The woman, who was taking zolpdiem and had recently increased her dose, was capable of booting up a computer, launching software and navigating two security settings, which required user names and passwords, then writing and sending messages. Once, she sent out an invitation that read: "Come tomorrow and sort this hell hole out! Dinner and drinks, 4:00pm? Wine and caviar to bring only. Everything else, a guess?"

Since then, a sleep-texting community with more than 16,000 members has appeared on Facebook, several overseas sleep specialists have warned teens of the phenomenon and advised them to leave their phones outside their rooms, and, in 2013, a New Zealand woman made world headlines when she took sleep medication then drove 300km from Hamilton to Mount Manganui, texting incoherent messages all the way. The police tracked her phone and she was eventually found slumped over the steering wheel in the driveway of a house she once lived at. She had no recollection of the night's epic events.

The increasing reports of people firing up phones and laptops in their sleep don't surprise the founder of the New Zealand-wide Sleep Well Clinic, Dr Alex Bartle. He can tell you far more jaw-dropping stories of people who eat or initiate sex in their sleep. "They're all variants of sleepwalking" he says. "They are automatic behaviours."

Known as parasomnias, they spark into action in the three to four hours after nodding off. "They tend to happen in the first part of the night when you're in your non-REM sleep. When you're in REM sleep at the end of the night you're paralysed, so you're not going to be able to do all these things," he says.

There are usually genetics in play. People affected by parasomnias would have sleepwalked or had night terrors as a child and probably have a family member who is a sleepwalker. "Then you have something else on top of that," says Dr Bartle. "Often it's either stress or fatigue but it can be febrile illness – if you've got a fever it can make you do it."

Sleeping pills can occasionally spark parasomnias, as they did with Kristin Chenoweth, the first documented sleep-tweeter and the Hamilton drive-texter. Alcohol is also thought to increase the likelihood of an incident.

But what makes a person fire off texts or tweets rather than sleepwalk around the house? "They would need to be pretty familiar with what they're doing," says Dr Bartle. "It's much more likely with people using this type of media all the time."

Of course, the number of people au fait with technology is growing rapidly. "We're using devices all the time so we're very familiar and we almost do it on auto-pilot. I watch my children do it – they don't really think about it, they just do it. I think that's why you can text or type in the middle of the night without thinking about it."

So, what do you do if you're buying tarpaulins, inviting people over for dinner or tweeting fictional adoption plans in your sleep? As well as leaving any devices outside of the bedroom, Dr Bartle says the key is to watch your alcohol intake and deal with any fatigue or stress that might be sparking your nocturnal activities. "Are you burning the midnight oil? Are you very stressed about a project? Are you taking on too much work? Can you modify any of those behaviours?

"[Then it's about] learning some relaxing strategies like abdominal breathing, mindfulness mediation – those sorts of things."

At night-time, he says, it's important to go to bed in as calm a state as possible, ideally having a hot bath or shower a short while before you turn in.

Or you could do nothing, which is what Megan Sellers plans on. "I'm not that worried. I might be if I spent too much," she says. "But even in my subconscious I'm pretty thrifty about it."

Not to mention tasteful. There are no labrador pillowslips at Seller's place.

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