Understanding Sleepwalking Behaviors and Causes

Many people lack an understanding of how and why people walk in this sleep. Learn what causes sleepwalking and how you might be able to stop it.

By Ashley Little

Learning from someone else that you have been walking in your sleep at night with no memory of the event can be unnerving and cause concern.

Though it is fairly common, many people do not actually understand the cause behind sleepwalking and the potential dangers it may bring to your well-being. Even worse, most sleepwalkers are unaware that they are doing so until someone else alerts them to the fact, so they don’t know to seek treatment.

The first step to addressing an issue is learning about it. Let’s look into what sleepwalking is, the causes behind it, and ways you may be able to prevent it.

Young sleepy woman suffering from somnambulism at home

What is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking, formally known as somnambulism, is a parasomnia during which a person performs complex behaviors such as walking and talking while sleeping. A sleepwalker’s eyes can be open and they may appear awake, though they are not conscious. This behavior is most common in children but can also be exhibited in adults, especially those who are sleep deprived.

Sleepwalking can include more activities than walking, including sitting up in bed and looking around, speaking, moving through rooms, leaving the house, and even driving. A person who is sleepwalking may carry on a conversation but be disoriented. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 to 15 percent of the population experiences these phenomena.

Causes

Early studies on sleepwalking included speculation that sleepwalking was associated with mental health disorders, though modern research has identified other genetic, environmental, and physiological factors.

Genetics

Sleepwalking is said to run in families. Studies have even found that sleepwalking is ten times more likely to occur for those who have close relatives with a history of sleepwalking. If you’re a sleepwalker, your child, parent, or sibling is likely to also experience this issue.

Environmental factors

Certain conditions relating to your lifestyle habits and sleep hygiene may contribute to your likelihood of walking in your sleep. High levels of stress or the use of certain drugs may cause sleepwalking. These drugs include sedatives, neuroleptics, antihistamines, stimulates, and minor tranquilizers. The abuse of alcohol is also a trigger for sleepwalking.

If you experience sleep deprivation or have an irregular sleeping schedule, you may also be more prone to the behaviors associated with this parasomnia.

Physiological factors

With the longest list of potential triggers, certain conditions relating to your physical health may lead to sleepwalking behaviors. These include:

  • Febrile illnesses (fever)
  • High levels of stress or anxiety
  • Heartburn
  • Frequent nighttime seizures
  • Pregnancy or menstruation
  • Length and depth of slow wave sleep (non-REM sleep)
  • Acid reflux
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Dissociative conditions

Sleepwalking occurs most often during deep, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep within the first few hours of sleep. If you have one of the aforementioned conditions, it is possible that one or more contributes to sleepwalking.

Common Misconceptions

Because of the lack of knowledge about sleepwalking, there are a few misconceptions about the condition.

Many people have heard that you shouldn’t wake a sleepwalker because it is dangerous. In fact, it is more dangerous to not wake someone up who is exhibiting these behaviors. Left to their own devices, sleepwalkers could easily injure themselves or others.

People also believe that you cannot be injured while you are sleepwalking, though this is untrue. Although a person who is sleepwalking may seem unphased or disoriented, they can be injured and will feel the impact of their injuries when they regain consciousness.

If you see someone sleepwalking, gently try to wake them and lead them back to bed. For children who sleepwalk, consider adding barriers on the bed, doors, and windows, or other methods to keep them more safely in their bed or bedroom.

How to Stop Sleepwalking

Although it can be dangerous, sleepwalking is usually a harmless and random event. Treatment may be able to help you reduce instances of sleepwalking, though some in sleep medicine say it cannot be cured.

In order to reduce your chances of sleepwalking, be sure you are getting enough sleep each night so you are not at risk of sleep deprivation. Most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep each night, and the amount of sleep children need varies by age.

Along with ensuring the quantity of your sleep is up to par, you should also focus on the quality. If you suffer from a sleep disorder that interrupts your sleep such as RLS or sleep apnea, treating the primary condition can help you reduce instances of sleepwalking.

Consult with your doctor for the treatment method that is best for you. You may find that medications help you sleep better throughout the night. More out-of-the-box treatment options even include meditation and hypnosis.

Better nights of sleep are right around the corner for those who seek help! Check back with us for more ways you can improve your sleep hygiene and stay well-rested every day.


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