When you think of sleepwalking, you probably imagine children walking around in their sleep at all hours of the night. Many people tend to think this way because children are more likely to experience this behavior. But I can say from personal experience that it certainly affects adults as well. Around 7% of people will experience a sleepwalking episode in their lifetime. It can also happen at any time in a person’s life.
Finding out that you’re a sleepwalker can be quite embarrassing, especially when it’s others who first inform you of this. I’m all too familiar with this scenario. Years ago, while on a business trip, I was found wandering the halls in a hotel. It was a security guard at the hotel who had told me that other guests found me walking with my eyes closed and called him. Unfortunately, this was just the first of many embarrassing sleepwalking incidents that I had experienced over the course of two years.
Doctors refer to sleepwalking as somnambulism, and although it sounds like a scary medical term, it’s rarely a sign of something serious. If you’re experiencing sleepwalking episodes yourself, knowing why it’s happening is key to stopping it.
Why Do We Sleepwalk?
There are many different reasons why you might be sleepwalking. Daytime stress, medications, sleep deprivation, and even your genetics can all be causes. In many cases, it’s simply caused by a disturbance in sleep. A noise outside or a change in room temperature can disrupt your sleep and trigger an episode.
If you discover that you’ve been sleepwalking, you should first consider recording yourself with a camera while you sleep. It can be a cat making sounds outside your window or a neighbor talking too loudly. The recording might help to identify the source of your problem.
Certain physical disorders can also interrupt your sleep as well, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS). In my case, it was stress that had caused my repeated incidents. Once I reduced my daily stress, there were no more reports from others of my strange behavior.
Identifying sleepwalk causes is not always easy though, but it’s crucial to fix the problem. Obviously, this would be difficult if you sleepwalk without knowing it. Eventually, someone might ask you, “Hey, why do you sleepwalk like that?” Once you realize you do it, you can then pinpoint what’s causing it.
What is Sleepwalking?
There are some typical symptoms of this disorder that do commonly occur in many people. Getting out of bed and walking while not being aware of what you’re doing is the most classic symptom of sleepwalking. Sitting or standing up and not responding to others while appearing to be awake is also common.
Sleepwalking symptoms can, however, vary between people because there are different causes and people react differently. For example, you might find yourself waking up in the kitchen with the refrigerator door open and food all over the floor. Someone else might find themselves sitting up in bed and not remember sitting up. Feeling confused or not knowing where you are when you wake up may be a sign that you just experienced an episode of sleepwalking.
While all of these are immediate symptoms that can happen directly after you’ve been sleepwalking, daytime symptoms can act as clues. You might feel tired throughout the day because sleepwalking had disturbed your sleep at night. This was something that I had experienced many times after my first episode, but I didn’t make the connection until later. Depression, anxiety, and trouble concentrating may also be subtle signs that you’re a sleepwalker.
Is Sleepwalking Dangerous?
When I was first officially diagnosed with sleepwalking, I was very worried about any underlying conditions that might be causing it. While some medical conditions can cause it, this is rarely the case. Any medical problems you might be concerned about can be easily ruled out by a doctor.
Any dangers related to sleepwalking are normally a result of the behavior itself. There is a risk of becoming injured for hurting others while walking in your sleep. This is somewhat rare, but a possibility that does in fact happen sometimes. Are your eyes open when you sleepwalk? They might be. But you won’t normally be aware of what you’re doing or where you’re going, even if they are open.
Another thing to consider is how this disorder can be dangerous for your overall health. The stress and anxiety you might experience after being awakened may lead to other problems such as panic attacks during the day. Constant feelings of being tired and unable to concentrate can lead to dangerous situations when driving or doing things that require your attention. All of this can also wear down your immune system and contribute to other medical problems.
What to Do with a Sleepwalking Person?
Whether you’re experiencing sleepwalking yourself or know someone who is, you should know what to do and what not to do about it.
If you yourself have been sleepwalking, you should start taking precautions to make your home safer. This includes making sure all windows are closed, ensuring there are no sharp objects lying around, and blocking any stairwells or other areas of your home that might be dangerous.
As an observer, you should follow those same precautions along with a few others. You should never forcefully wake up someone who is sleepwalking. Shaking them or otherwise abruptly waking them up might lead to a violent situation. They may instinctively try to defend themselves and might not realize that you’re trying to help them. Slips and falls can happen if they are disoriented while standing up. Instead, you should try to gently guide the sleepwalker back to bed without forcefully grabbing them.
Rest assured, sleepwalking is rarely something to be concerned about if it’s only happened once or a few times. Is sleepwalking bad? It can be. But consulting with a doctor and identifying the cause will normally resolve it.
Luckily, we live in an age where we have modern diagnostic testing available. So your doctor might order an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a test that can monitor electrical impulses in your brain while you sleep.
Sleepwalking kids/children normally stop walking in their sleep once they grow a bit or reach puberty. Adults, particularly those in middle age, often find that their sleepwalking is just a side effect of a temporary phase they’re going through.
Now that you’re aware of the different symptoms and causes, I hope you’re able to avoid the embarrassing scenarios that I once struggled with.