Sleepwalking: The Ins and Outs
9th Oct 2020
Have you ever experienced a family member come walking through the house at night, completely ignore you, and start doing something totally random?
Catching someone sleepwalking can be a bit of an eerie experience! They appear normal and wide awake. But when they act like you aren’t even there, it can send a brief bit of panic through someone witnessing it!
Do you know what causes sleepwalking? Today we’re delving into its causes, what happens in the brain during a sleepwalking episode, and what you can do to stay safe if you’re a sleepwalker!
What is Sleepwalking?
When we think of sleepwalking, we often picture young children that have left their beds and are wandering around the house, arms in the air and drool escaping from their mouths!
That’s not quite an accurate picture of it, though.
While sleepwalking may be more common in children, it can also affect adults. The medical term for sleepwalking is somnambulism, which sounds much more serious and adult-like.
When you sleepwalk, you can get up from bed and perform complex actions. Or you may simply walk around the house, while you’re fast asleep.
Some sleepwalkers may rearrange the furniture. Others may even cook a meal. One may go about doing daily activities that aren’t usually done at night.
There have been instances of people trying to escape what they’re dreaming about, which could have them running out of bed!
In rare cases, some sleepwalkers have gotten into their car and driven for a good few miles before waking up.
Most people who sleepwalk won’t recall anything, despite doing complex things!
What Happens When Someone is Sleepwalking?
A sleeping person is more likely to sleepwalk when they’re in their deep sleep cycle, Stage 3 and Stage 4 NREM.
This is the stage where your body starts regenerating cells and doing health-promoting tasks. There is no eye movement yet, and there should be no muscle activity either.
It’s in this stage that sleepwalking, night terrors and bedwetting happen. Although the sleepwalker is not conscious, the brain lets the body make certain automatic movements.
- Walk around
- Cook breakfast
- Make coffee
- Get changed
- Clean the house
Or other everyday, automatic activities!
Sleepwalking only occurs in the first cycle of deep sleep. That's within 90 minutes of falling asleep.
So if you do hear strange sounds coming from the kitchen, your loved one may not just be looking for a midnight snack. They may be sleepwalking, which could last from 10 minutes up to 30 minutes.
How Do You Know If Someone is Sleepwalking?
It can be difficult to tell if someone is awake or if they’re sleepwalking! But there are some signs that can indicate if someone is actually asleep.
In most cases of sleepwalking, a person’s eyes are open and have a “glazed” look to them. They may not have any facial expression, with a glassy-eyed look as though they’re looking through you, not at you.
It is possible for a sleepwalker to respond to you, but the response is likely to be unintelligible. In most cases they won’t respond to you. Don’t take it personally! They don’t even know you’re there.
So if your partner wanders through to the living room, ignores you, avoids eye contact, and mumbles unintelligible stuff (and you haven’t had a fight recently), they could just be fast asleep!
Can I Wake a Sleepwalker?
It’s difficult to wake someone who’s sleepwalking. Because they’re in deep sleep, their brain is somewhere far away.
The best thing to do is redirect the sleepwalker back to the safety of their own bed.
Imagine how you’d feel if you woke up and you didn’t have the slightest idea of how you got to where you are? You’d probably feel confused and disorientated.
Waking a sleepwalker could also startle them and trigger a stress response, like a display of aggression.
If there’s no immediate need to wake the person, then use a soft, soothing voice and light touch to guide them back to bed. Make sure they’re not going to walk into anything or injure themselves on the way back.
What Causes Sleepwalking?
It’s rare for an adult to start sleepwalking, but it does happen. There are a couple of reasons that one could suddenly start sleepwalking, such as:
If you or a loved one has started sleepwalking, you may want to do some research on family history. There’s a specific genetic thread in families who have sleepwalkers. This “sleepwalking gene” can triple the likelihood of you having a sleepwalking episode!
We often think of sleep deprivation as only affecting insomniacs who can go without sleep for a few days.
However, it can affect us all! If you’ve been getting fewer hours of quality sleep then you could be sleep deprived.
Have you been getting 5 to 6 hours of sleep and you’re still feeling tired and out-of-sorts? This is your body's way of telling you that you’re not getting enough quality sleep.
If this is happening more frequently, you may notice:
- More fatigue, more often.
- Trouble with your memory.
- Changes in your mood.
All of these are indicators of being sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can lead to sleep disorders!
Sleep apnea, parasomnias (including sleepwalking), restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy are some examples.
In today’s world, we’re often under a great deal of stress. Stress can disrupt our sleeping patterns and increase the chance of sleepwalking.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulates our bodies’ hormonal reaction to stress.
When we experience stress, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary gland. This then signals to the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. These are known as the stress hormones.
This can cause chaotic sleep schedules, disrupted sleep, and sleep deprivation. This creates more stress. Stress has a negative impact on other aspects of our body, which can lead right back to… Sleep deprivation.
And so the cycle continues!
In some cases, medications can cause sleepwalking. If you’re using:
- Sedative-hypnotics (medications to relax or sleep)
- Antihistamines (anti-allergy meds)
- Stimulants (which boost activity)
- Neuroleptics (used to treat psychosis)
… Some of them can trigger sleepwalking.
It’s rare, though! If you’re concerned that one of your meds could cause sleepwalking, chat to your doctor about it.
Effects of Sleepwalking
We all remember how we’ve felt the morning after a bad night’s sleep. You’ll normally face the next day trying to stay awake behind your desk or sitting in a meeting.
You may find yourself reaching for another cup of coffee or an unhealthy snack, just so you can feel more wake.
If you’re not getting the deep sleep your body needs, this can lead to you feeling physically fatigued.
You may find that you have persistent tiredness that won’t go away with just one night of 8 hours of sleep.
When our sleep is disrupted on a nightly basis, this has a direct impact on the ability of our brain cells to communicate with each other.
This affects our memory and the way we either store or recall information. It can also cause temporary mental lapses or affect your visual perception.
Research is now starting to explain why our brains feel as though they’re shrouded in mental fog when we don’t get enough sleep. It also shows the impact that the lack of sleep has on our reaction time, as well as our decision making.
When we haven’t had a good night’s sleep it affects our mood. You may notice that you:
- Are more impatient
- Have less tolerance for other people
- Snap at others more than you usually would
- Display frustration and irritation in situations that you normally wouldn’t.
It only takes one night of not having decent rest, and you’ll find that the way you react to stress is different.
If you work long hours and only get 5 hours of sleep every night, after a week you’ll find that you feel more frustrated, angry and sad.
Potential for Injury
The potential for injury is higher when we’ve had less sleep, and this isn’t limited to driving! When you're fatigued, even something like playing sports could lead to an injury. Being too tired to maintain the proper form could be dangerous.
When you’re tired, even from one night of disrupted sleep, your reaction time will be slower. This has an impact on how you make split-second decisions that would usually help you to avoid injury.
- Spilling hot coffee on yourself
- Tripping over your laptop power cable
- Accidentally skipping a traffic light
- Crossing the road without looking both ways
... being tired increases the potential for injury!
When Should Sleepwalking Be Addressed By a Doctor?
If a person only has a sleepwalking incident once in a while, it may not need treatment.
However, if it’s happening on a frequent basis, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor. It may hint at an underlying sleep disorder.
A single occurrence of sleepwalking can be a sign of lack of sleep, stress or a fever. Generally, the sleepwalking will stop when these conditions have been resolved.
If it doesn’t stop and instead becomes more frequent, or the sleepwalker is at risk of injuring themselves, then seeking medical advice is definitely advised!
How is Sleepwalking Treated?
A number of things can cause sleepwalking. Some common causes include:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Night time seizures
- Changes in meds
- Extreme stress
Treating the root cause is the way forward! Once the cause has been identified, your medical professional may choose to:
- prescribe some lifestyle changes
- prescribe some medication, if necessary.
Improve Your Sleep Schedule
Life is busy, and a variety of activities can disrupt our sleep. But by sticking to a sleep schedule (even on weekends) your body’s internal clock will get into good habits.
By instilling a sleep routine you’ll find that you fall asleep quicker and wake up feeling more refreshed in the morning. Even small changes to your daily schedule can improve your sleep.
Try getting to sleep 30 minutes earlier, or putting your phone down an hour before going to sleep.
Double-Check Your Medication
Before taking a sleeping tablet or antihistamine, have a look at what the side effects are. If you’ve been sleepwalking, has it only been since you’ve been taking a certain medication?
If so, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice and either change the brand of medication or the dosage.
We may not be able to avoid stress or stressful situations, but we can manage how the stress affects us.
Find something that helps you to reduce your stress. This could be anything you enjoy! Great stress-relievers include:
- Playing a musical instrument
- Doing an anaerobic exercise
There may be some stresses in your life that hobbies aren’t going to help with. This is when you can reach out and chat to a friend, so you can get things off your chest. You may be surprised at how much simply chatting about it reduces stress and improves your sleep!
Depending on your circumstances, your doctor may prescribe medication to stop the sleepwalking.
A doctor may prescribe one of the following medications:
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Diazepam (Valium)
These can help reduce anxiety and stress. This in turn facilitates better rest and allows you to get the deep sleep that you need.
It’s important that you don’t self-medicate, though! A doctor’s word is necessary before trying to treat with meds.
Some people may not be comfortable taking meds. In this case, a doctor may prescribe an alternative treatment - hypnosis.
Hypnosis may not be for everyone. But it can definitely help when doctors can identify no other cause.
Sometimes, sleepwalking is a psychological thing. It’s hard to figure out what causes this, but hypnosis can get to the deep root of psychological causes.
The hypno-therapist makes positive suggestions while the patient is under hypnosis. The idea is for these positive things to sink into the subconscious.
Studies have shown that hypnosis can help stop sleepwalking. It may sound unlikely, but it's true!
Tips For Protection While Sleepwalking
While sleepwalking itself isn’t inherently dangerous, it can put you or your loved one in harm’s way.
There are precautions you can take to keep sleepwalkers as safe as possible. It’s a good idea to put some of these in place even if there are no sleepwalkers in the family, to make nights a little safer!
Make Sure Your Room Is Safe
Keep your bedroom floor free of any clutter. Don’t leave stuff lying around that you could trip over! If you have furniture with sharp edges, you may want to look at putting a foam on the corners.
A simple bit of tidying up every evening before going to bed can make a big difference!
Place a Bell/Alarm on Your Bedroom Door
Before you go to sleep, make sure all the windows and doors are securely locked. Nobody wants to wake up in the middle of a deserted street in the darkness without knowing how they got there!
One option is to install door and window sensors in your bedroom that you link up to an alarm. This could either wake you up or alert your loved one when you start sleepwalking.
Make It Difficult To Do Stuff
Sleepwalkers do everyday things without their brain really being engaged. But if the thing they’re doing is difficult or complicated, it’s likely they will just move onto something else!
If you have stairs, put a gate up at the entrance to prevent the sleepwalker from falling down the stairs. Chances are, the sleepwalker will simply move on instead of trying to figure out the gate.
Find a spot to place keys, purses, and bags where the sleepwalker won’t be able to access them.
If you’re worried about the sleepwalker leaving the house, you can add extra locks or deadbolts to entrances.
Don’t Sleep Naked!
Some people prefer to sleep naked. On those hot summer nights it can be super helpful to feel a bit cooler and get a better night’s rest.
But… It can lead to a potential embarrassing moment for a sleepwalker! Especially if they wake up in a different room or different place entirely.
It’s best to go to sleep wearing light clothing if you happen to struggle with sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking is a more common occurrence amongst adults than you may realize! Most times, it’s not anything to be worried about.
It can be an issue if it happens frequently, or if the sleepwalker is in danger of hurting themselves. The good news is it's usually easy to treat by making a few simple changes to your lifestyle.
Are you a sleepwalker? Share some of your sleepwalking stories in the comments!