Sleepwalking occurs when the motor cortex of an individual stays active while they are dreaming. This means that they do not have the normal sleep paralysis that prevents them from acting out their dreams and thereby means that they end up getting up and walking around, talking in their sleep, raiding the fridge and performing a range of other acts.
This can be unsettling and disruptive for both the sleeper and those around them, and it can also cause tiredness during the day and disorientation and confusion and potentially be highly dangerous if the sleepwalker should cause harm to themselves or others through lack of conscious awareness. In some rare cases sleepwalkers have been known to commit crimes during their sleep, and here they have used the defense of 'automatism' to defend themselves.
Of course this is a problem for anyone who experiences sleepwalking, or anyone who lives with a sleepwalker, and one that needs to be addressed. Here we will look at how to go about doing just that and preventing and treating sleepwalking.
Causes of Sleepwalking
As mentioned, sleepwalking occurs when sleep paralysis does not set in thereby allowing the individual to act out their dreams during the night. This in itself however can be caused by a disturbed sleep, or high neuroactivity – which may be a result of racing thoughts and lots of activity during the day. Understanding these causes can allow you to avoid sleepwalking from occurring.
For instance if you are experiencing a lot of stress in your waking life, this has been known to manifest as a range of sleep disorders including nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking – so addressing these might help you to avoid sleepwalking. Likewise take half an hour or so to calm down before bed, to let your thinking slow down and to take a break from heavy exertion. Avoid watching films or playing games, and instead take half an hour to just meditate or read a book.
Other causes of sleepwalking can include fever, alcohol intoxication, sleep deprivation, chaotic sleep patterns and magnesium deficiency. Try to enforce regular bed times then, avoid alcohol, get adequate sleep, and supplement your diet with magnesium. Pregnancy and menstruation have also been known to increase the regularity of sleepwalking. Associated medical conditions include fever, arrhythmia, obstructive sleep apnea, nighttime asthma and nighttime seizures.
In many cases sleepwalking will not be necessary – as the occurrence is rare enough for it not to be a problem. Sleepwalking is also most common in young children, and will normally lessen as they reach puberty and adulthood.
If you are concerned about sleepwalking then it can be a good measure however to make sure your immediate environment is safe and conducive to sleepwalking. Try to locate your bedroom on the ground floor, avoid having sharp or dangerous objects within reach, and cover and lock the windows.
If the sleepwalking is highly regular, or particularly violent and/or dangerous then you may wish to seek medical intervention. A doctor may rule out medical causes for sleepwalking, while a psychological investigation might look into possible causes of stress that might be contributing to the problem. Failing this you might be sent to a sleep clinic where your sleep patterns will be monitored overnight. In extreme cases medication may be recommended in order to relax muscles and help you to sleep more heavily. Benzodiazepenes have been used to treat sleepwalking in some cases, though these have some side effects so are best left as a last resort (though normally they can be discontinued after 3-5 weeks without recurrence of the symptoms). Using sleeping pills yourself may also prove effective (though they may also worsen the problem).
As mentioned you can try to prevent sleepwalking by taking time to relax before bed, by enforcing regular sleep patterns and by addressing causes of stress in your waking life. However another method you can use is to wake yourself roughly one hour after you go to sleep (or ask someone else to do it). Similarly to night terrors, but unlike nightmares, sleepwalking tends to occur during the earlier stages of sleep – and by waking yourself during these you can disrupt your usual pattern and avoid the sleepwalking from occurring.
How to React to a Sleepwalker
If you are a parent or partner of a sleepwalker then you may find yourself from time to time having to deal with them which can be somewhat unsettling and hard to know what to do for best. When dealing with a sleepwalker bear in mind that it is perfectly safe to wake them despite rumors to the contrary and the worst effect it might have for them is likely to be causing confusion and embarrassment subsequently. The problem with waking a sleepwalker is that they can on some rare occasions react violently, and it can sometimes be hard to rouse them.
Try turning on the light to bring them around and gently shaking them. If they do not wake then reassure them that they are safe and agree with what they are saying – disagreeing and telling them they are sleeping will often cause further confusion and distress. Most importantly though monitor their behavior and make sure they don't do anything unsafe, and try to direct them back to bed.