Bumps in the Night: What Causes Sleepwalking in Adults

When I was young, somewhere around the age of 9 or 10, I was studying for the local parish qualifiers?for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. That was an inordinately stressful time, with many long evenings after school along with?weekends consumed with drills. If I could have channeled spelling as a super power, I would have been amongst the strongest ever (just kidding!). But without further digression I just want to zoom in one very specific occurrence. My parents awoke to me mumbling one night. When they came into my room, they saw me sitting up in the dead of night, spelling away like it was nobody’s business! Upon closer inspection, I seemed to be in an almost trancelike state…eyes open and all. I suddenly flopped back into bed as they were watching off to dreamland once more. It made for pretty good entertainment at next morning’s breakfast I’ll tell you that for sure…especially since I remembered none of it. By the way, I came third?so maybe spelling in my sleep did some good after all!

What my parents observed was actually a harmless sleepwalking episode (though I didn’t do the “walking” part in a manner of speaking)?. For me I didn’t have this often–perhaps only around 3 times in my younger years. That would be understandable since sleepwalking is more prevalent amongst children than adults in any case. But that said, there are adults who sleepwalk with possibly frightening frequency to the point where they are classified amongst those with the?disorder. Why does this happen? That’s the intention of this post: to take a look at the phenomenon of sleepwalking, its causes and potential treatment options for adults.

What is Sleepwalking?

John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist

John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist

Sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism or noctambulism), as its name suggests, is depicted in persons who get up while asleep and exhibit behaviours as though they were awake. Contrary to popular belief, these behaviours?occur along a spectrum, and do not always involve walking! Said spectrum ranges from fairly benign activities such as sitting up in bed and speaking (like myself), to wildly extreme ‘escapist’ feats such as jumping through windows. Episodes are likely to run anywhere from a few seconds to 30 minutes, with the walker eventually going back to bed and falling asleep very quickly. As a sidenote, there’s also a terribly (but unintentionally) malignant version of sleepwalking known as homicidal sleepwalking–one in which the ‘walker’ actually kills someone and has no recollection of the event. As it stands, over 60 of those cases are known today (certainly wouldn’t want to be the judge presiding in those instances!).Notwithstanding elements of the bizarre, here are just a few of the known traits and activities which characterise?sleepwalkers:

  • Walking around (even getting dressed in the process)
  • Sleeptalking (or in my case–sleepspelling!)
  • Having a blank affect, or a glassy-eyed stare
  • Unresponsiveness to attempts at communication, and difficult to arouse during episode
  • Cooking! (yes persons have been known to ‘cook’ while sleepwalking, with potentially disastrous consequences)
  • Disorientation, confusion and occasional aggression upon awakening

There are also a few other rare occurrences such as driving, overt sexual behaviour, and injury due to accidents or extremely risky acts (eg. jumping out windows).

Insofar as classification, sleepwalking is subsumed as a parasomnia–an umbrella term which captures anything unusual that occurs in an individual at any particular stage in sleep (with the exception of sleep apnea). By ‘anything unusual’ here we are referring to any movement, emotion, dream or arousal that is beyond the ordinary characteristics of a normal sleeper. This activity when it was first discovered generated quite a buzz in the scientific community due to speculations around its onset. Baron Karl Ludwig von Reichenbach, a German Chemist in the 19th century, was the first scientist to do extensive studies of the condition, eventually culminating in a hypothetical form of ambient stimulus and energy coined as the “Odic Force”. Though this may sound like something straight out of a Marvel comic, some proponents hold that this form of energy does indeed exist, and is very similar to what one would call “chi” or “prana” in some Eastern belief systems. Freud also took a stab at defining sleepwalking in terms of internal conflict and?subconscious desire?which eventually presented themselves in the form of strange movement during sleep. Must make for pretty interesting reading material?I believe.

Do We Know What?Causes Sleepwalking in Adults?sleepwalking-toon

Statistics say that around 4% of adults will exhibit this sleep disorder which usually occurs when an individual is in the process of moving from a deep sleep up to a lighter stage of rest. This transition from stage-3 NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep to partial wakefulness generally seems to represent the tipping point where an individual may start sleepwalking. Stage 3 Non-REM sleep (also known as SWS – slow wave sleep) is the deepest type of sleep known at this point…so deep that one could practically say that the individual is cut off from the outside world. It is the phase during which dreaming is most likely to occur, and, incidentally, tends to be the point where other parasomnias may occur as well (eg. night terrors, bedwetting, etc). Circumspectly though, despite the study that has gone into this scientific oddity, noone can really say for sure what causes it! The medical fraternity however has been able to identify risk factors which contribute to its occurrence, which are outlined below:

  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation and/or excessive fatigue
  • Poor sleep hygiene (eg.?irregular bedtimes)
  • Genetics (eg. if one of your parents is a sleepwalker, you’re also likely to exhibit this behaviour)
  • Illness (my grandfather sometimes did this and he had bladder cancer)
  • Medication (especially sedatives, stimulants, antihistamines and anti-psychotics)
  • Inebriation (alcoholics or occasional heavy driinkers are known to wake up in compromising situations exactly because of this)

Notable medical conditions that are often known to accompany sleepwalking include, but are not limited to, obstructive sleep apnea, cardfiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), night terrors, panic attacks and ?restless leg syndrome (RLS).

How is Sleepwalking Treated in Adults?

Sleepwalking isn’t normally harmful, but a doctor should be seen if man-awakeepisodes occur fairly frequently (ie one or more times per week). Additionally, where children in their teen years do not outgrow this condition, medical intervention should be introduced as early as is possible. Otherwise, the safest thing to do upon observing a sleepwalker is to gently lead them back to bed. If possible, do not wake them up since they may become confused and potentially agitated.

Do recall however, that the possibility for injury (or terrible embarrassment) is very real so the act of sleepwalking in specific circumstances may actually be hazardous to both the sleepwalker?as well as those around them. It may make sense therefore to pursue a more in-depth route, which may include other interventions?such as:

  • Changing medication (avoiding drug classes that will promote the behaviour)
  • Addressing the root cause of the issues which may provoke sleepwalking (eg. chaotic sleep schedules, etc)
  • Leveraging self-hypnosis or autosuggestion
  • Altering the environment for safety (ensuring that the sleeping environment is safe, obstacle-free and devoid of sharp objects and edges that could otherwise harm the sleepwalker)
  • Pattern-based awakening (verifying the sleepwalking pattern and then waking up the sleepwalker 15 minutes before, keeping them awake briefly and then allowing them to go back to sleep)
  • Improving sleep hygiene (consistent bedtimes and getting the required?amount?of sleep)
  • Establishing a bedtime ritual to promote relaxation
  • Blocking time for recreational de-stressing?routines
  • Learning to manage anxiety
  • Staying away from?that bottle! (reducing alcohol intake)

Those should assist in reducing, or possibly eliminating sleepwalking episodes. As per usual, poor sleep hygiene is a contributor to these things so it makes sense to really go after lifestyle changes first rather than medication.

I do hope that you found this to be informative. Is sleepwalking a problem for you, or even your child? What are your coping mechanisms? Shoot me a line below, I’d love to hear about any questions or experiences you may have.

Sleep well until next time!

Josh.

6 Comments

  1. Syed Suhail Ahmed

    Thank you for this informative post.

    I really did enjoy reading and I’ve heard many stories of people who have performed acts which are unbelievable in their sleep.. even murders!

    I used to have a neighbor who’s son used to sleepwalk and eventually the habit got under control… it isn’t the same for everyone, right?

    Also, thank you for the tips on the treatment of sleepwalking in adults.

    Cheers,
    Suhail.

    Reply
    1. Joshua (Post author)

      Glad you enjoyed reading this Suhail. You’re quite right, sleepwalking is sometimes a fairly intractable problem for some. I’m guessing your neighbour’s son eventually outgrew the act, as most kids would normally do. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    Very interesting! I was once found as a young child sat playing dominos by myself during the night whilst staying at my aunt’s. I was probably around 5 years old and my parents had recently divorced so it was probably a stressful time for me. Nothing like this ever happened again until a few weeks back when my husband did actually wake me up from an episode of being sat bolt upright in bed searching around as though my 2 year old boy had fallen off the bed. I’m currently pregnant so maybe it’s fatigue and some anxiety at play again? Does this class me as a sleepwalker having only happened twice in my life?

    Reply
    1. Joshua (Post author)

      Hi Caroline, thanks for sharing. Yours is a prime example of what sleepwalking looks like, but the good thing is that you wouldn’t be classified as having the disorder (unless of course your frequency starts increasing, in which case you would need to see your physician). I would venture to say that based on your condition, there’s probably an element of stress that played a part in your most recent episode. Pregnant women are also known to produce more melatonin so they tend to stay longer in the slow wave sleep cycle. Combined, I believe that those would explain your specific case. I wish you all the best for the remaining weeks of your pregnancy!

      Reply
  3. jschicanha

    Wonderful, this is an interesting topic i never read, sleepwalking is a very serious issue and it happen often in our nation.According to your article its corresponding with my experience that i researched that sleepwalking it is caused by stress.Thank you for trying to help us wuth this issue.

    Regards
    Jose

    Reply
    1. Joshua (Post author)

      Thanks JS, I appreciate your comment. Sleepwalking is indeed something that many do not know about or truly understand so it’s definitely good to have an appreciation of its causes and how it can be managed. Be blessed!

      Reply

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