Have you ever woken up on the couch with the lights on when you for sure fell asleep in your bed? Or maybe you’ve witnessed your roommate emerge from his or her bedroom with glazed eyes, mumble and wander aimlessly…but possess no recollection of the bizarre encounter the next morning? You – or your roommate – may be one of the 2.5% of adults suffering from sleepwalking. Although not completely understood, there are ways to alleviate sleepwalking. Read on for more information and myth-busting, courtesy of our resident sleep therapist and researcher, Dr. Angela Lachowski, Ph.D., C. Psych (Supervised Practice).
What is it?
Sleepwalking is a fairly common parasomnia, a family of sleep disorders that involve undesired events during sleep. Known among sleep specialists as somnambulism, sleepwalking is a behavioral disorder that involves performing complex behaviors during a state of low consciousness that one normally performs with full consciousness. It is more common among children (an estimated 2-14% of children sleepwalk), but most kids who begin sleepwalking before age 10 will outgrow the disorder entirely.
Someone who is sleepwalking is not quite asleep and not quite awake. Brain scan studies show that sleepwalking occurs primarily during slow wave (“deep”) sleep, which is most abundant during the first half of the night. Sleepwalkers may seem like they are partially awake, often with a “glassy” look in their eyes, but it is likely that they will not remember any sleepwalking episodes. Sleepwalking can be quite dangerous – for example, some sleepwalkers have actually driven cars long distances. Generally, sleepwalking consists of simple, repeated behaviors, but occasionally includes more complex behaviors like eating, cooking, leaving the house, inappropriate behaviors (more common in children) and even violent behavior. The duration of a sleepwalking episode may last a few seconds up to about 30 minutes.
What causes it?
Sleepwalking tends to cluster in families, suggesting a genetic link. The causes of sleepwalking are not completely understood, but studies have shown that you are more likely to sleepwalk if you are sleep deprived, drinking alcohol, using sedative agents or taking certain medications. It is not usually linked to other psychological problems, but a medical disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea may contribute to sleepwalking. If you are an adult sleepwalker, it is important to get assessed by a sleep specialist in order to address any potential underlying cause.
How do you alleviate it?
Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for sleepwalking. In many cases, simply improving your sleep habits may eliminate the problem. Since sleep deprivation is often a precursor to sleepwalking, allowing for more time to sleep is also likely to help. If you or someone in your home is a sleepwalker, it is important to create a safe environment that decreases the probability of injuries. For example, lock doors and windows, use gates across stairs, make sure the floor around the bed is clear and avoid bunk beds.
How do you deal with a partner who sleepwalks?
Again, the emphasis should be on safety. There is a myth that you should never wake a sleepwalker, but in fact, it can be quite dangerous to not wake them. Try to gently direct the sleepwalker back to bed and be aware that he or she may become aggressive (even if that is not normally his or her personality). Remember that the sleepwalker will likely be very confused upon awakening or may have no memory at all of the event. If sleepwalking persists, consult with a sleep specialist for a thorough assessment and recommendations.