Imagine how it feels to wake up and realize you’ve been walking in your sleep. Far from being an amusing escapade, sleepwalking causes stress and anxiety for sufferers and their families. In spite of being totally asleep, people have been known to try and leave the house, carry out potentially dangerous household tasks (e.g. making a drink with boiling water), and even injure themselves by doing things like falling out of upper-story windows. In severe cases, sleepwalking can affect employment—for example, the British Royal Navy dismissed five sailors for sleepwalking last year, as it’s considered dangerous to sleepwalk while onboard a ship. Here are the key facts you need to know.
Who’s most likely to sleepwalk?
Young children aged 3-7 years are most likely to sleepwalk. Statistics vary, but it’s believed that around 1% of pre-school kids and about 2% of school-age kids sleepwalk regularly. Sometimes, this issue goes alongside other sleep-related problems, such as sleep apnea, bedwetting, and night terrors, and there’s often a family history of sleepwalking.
What causes sleepwalking?
It’s frequently believed that people who sleepwalk have a psychological problem, but in reality, sleepwalking is surprisingly common and often there’s no obvious underlying cause. Some people report factors that trigger their sleepwalking, including sleep deprivation or the use of sedatives. Drinking alcohol before bedtime can also be an issue. Some forms of medication can make sleepwalking more likely, and occasionally people may sleepwalk if they’re running a high fever.
What are the common symptoms of sleepwalking?
Sleepwalkers will usually do things in their sleep 3-4 times a week, and generally have little or no memory of the event afterward. It usually happens during the deep sleep phase of the sleep cycle, often occurring soon after falling asleep. Sometimes, sufferers may also talk in their sleep, and can even respond to questions or comments from others (but they’re unaware they are doing so). They may also do inappropriate or dangerous things, but it’s difficult to wake them during an episode.
Some sleepwalkers also suffer night terrors—a more extreme night-time disturbance in which the individual becomes terrified for no obvious reason. Those suffering from night terrors may scream or even violently attack others, again with no memory of the event after the fact. And if sleepwalking is frequent and highly disruptive, it can sometimes lead to other health issues, like exhaustion and depression.
What can be done to treat sleepwalking?
If the patient’s activities during sleepwalking aren’t dangerous, there’s often no need for treatment. Medication for sleepwalking has its own side effects, and doctors may advise that the low risk associated with sleepwalking doesn’t warrant facing the side effects of drug treatment.
This is especially true for children, who are likely to grow out of the habit in time. If there’s a specific trigger that can be identified (such as stress or a particular medication), then addressing the underlying cause often solves the problem. However, it is possible to prescribe sedatives to treat sleepwalking, and some anti-depressant medications have also been used successfully.
What about hypnosis?
Many sleepwalkers have found that a course of hypnosis therapy banishes their sleepwalking. In one study, patients were offered an initial course of six directed hypnosis sessions and were then taught self-hypnosis techniques to continue at home. Around 75% of patients reported a significant, lasting improvement in their condition as a result of following this routine.
What are the best ways to cope with sleepwalking?
Establishing a good sleep routine can often reduce instances of sleepwalking. For example, it’s important to keep to a regular sleeping and rising times, ensure the bedroom is dark, and follow a clear ‘winding down’ process before bed. Avoiding known triggers like alcohol will also help.
Also Read: 8 Ways to Get Better Sleep
Further, it’s vital to keep the home environment safe. External doors and windows should be kept locked, whilst trip hazards and sharp objects should be removed. A safety gate at the top of the stairs may help to prevent falls, and children who sleepwalk shouldn’t sleep in a top bunk. Sleepwalkers often follow a routine, so devise your own strategy for managing their individual habits. It’s a myth that you should never wake a sleepwalker—some will respond if woken gently and guided back to bed.
Finally, remember that around 75% of children grow out of sleepwalking. However, even if it persists into adulthood, most people can find ways to manage it so that it doesn’t cause too much disruption.