No matter who is experiencing the symptoms of sleepwalking they are never fun. In children, sleepwalking can cause fear and embarrassment. In adults, it can cause embarrassment, shame and even anxiety or anger.
The more you understand what the symptoms of sleepwalking are, and what causes them, the better able you will be understand what is happening and find ways to prevent other instances of sleepwalking from occurring.
What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is the act of ambulatory movement while the brain is still within the sleep stages. The person may walk, shuffle or even run or act in a panicked manner as if they are escaping something.
It is not uncommon for them to also hold a conversation or to perform an activity without being aware they are doing it, or remembering they did it once they awake.
While sleepwalkers remain in a stage of sleep, this condition is considered a form of sleep deprivation that can have serious impact on your health.
What is happening in your brain when you sleep walk?
While there isn’t a great deal of understanding about how the process works in the body that allows for sleepwalking, the mechanics of the stages the brain is in are understood well.
A sleepwalker is in the 3rd stage of sleep; this is one of the deepest stages and can be an intense dream state.
It is characterized by long waves in brain patterns, often described as a rolling brain wave set. This is a part of the reason that it can be so hard to wake a sleepwalker, they are in a stage of sleep that lacks the normal spikes of waking brain electricity so there are less opportunities for changing influence on the brain’s awareness. The smooth waves of the 3rd stage minimize the perception of interruption.
Who does it?
Children between the ages of 4 to 8 are the most likely to show symptoms of sleepwalking. It can also be present in adults, but in children the condition may persist for a longer period.
Children do not always grow out of sleepwalking, especially if it is being caused by other underlying conditions.
What are the symptoms of sleepwalking?
The symptoms of sleepwalking come in two stages. There is the primary stage – which involves the act of sleepwalking itself, and there is the secondary stage which involves the indicators of a risk of sleepwalking.
In the primary stage the person may get out of bed, walk and do normal daytime activities without being aware that they are doing so because they are still in a sleep stage.
Their eyes will be open, but will have an inwardly focused appearance and be glassy looking. The sleepwalking pose from the movies, that of the arms outstretched and zombie-like walk doesn’t happen, the person moves normally although slower than their normal pace.
The person could also be in an “escape” mode. This is characterized by a panicked movement, even running, as if in an attempt to escape something only they can see. They may crash into things or even fall, but rarely will wake in doing so.
In the secondary stage the symptoms of sleepwalking are more subtle. There may be more of restlessness in bed, walking movements while lying down, speaking while sleeping or gesturing in the air while still in bed as if they were up and moving about.
What causes sleepwalking?
The exact causes of sleepwalking are not known but there are certain conditions that can make someone more prone to the act of sleep walking. It is more common for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea to sleepwalk.
It is also commonly done by people who are experiencing unusually high levels of stress or anxiety in their life, have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and can be a side effect of medications that are classified as hypnotics. Intoxication from alcohol or drugs can also be an identifiable cause of sleepwalking as well.
What are the treatments for sleepwalking?
In treating the symptoms of sleepwalking physicians usually look to alleviate the contributing causes. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, that will be treated first as a means of alleviating the condition.
Therapy, counseling and stress reduction may also be recommended. For children, using a pattern of relaxation techniques and looking for potential allergies is another common treatment.
How can you reduce your risk of sleepwalking?
The best way to reduce your risk of sleepwalking is to work to reduce your chances of having associated conditions.
The three prime areas of your life that you can work to change are your diet, weight and stress levels. Being overweight contributes to obstructive sleep apnea so healthy weight management becomes a priority.
You may also explore changing any medications that you are on with the potential side effect of sleepwalking with your physician to rule out that as a cause.
Avoiding alcohol and intoxicating drugs is a must for someone who is seeking to stop the symptoms of sleepwalking.
For children, it is important to pay attention to the potential stressors in their life and work to reduce their anxiety about them.
What can you do to protect someone who sleepwalks?
While the common cultural myth is that it is dangerous to wake a sleepwalker, that isn’t really true. Waking a sleepwalker won’t push them into a heart attack or stroke, but it may cause them to enter into an acute state of anxiety, panic or confusion.
It is good to remember that not only is it difficult to wake from stage 3 sleep, but on waking many people (particularly children) experience a deep embarrassment at the act.
Your best bet is to use an alarm to wake them, or to speak gently and guide them back to bed. In a way you can assume being “part of their dream” and also work to reduce the level of stress and anxiety that may be causing the symptoms of sleepwalking in the first place.