Vol.1, No.4

What is sleep walking?

Sleepwalking is a common behavioral disorder in which a sufferer engages in activities common to them while awake, and yet they are seemingly asleep.

Sleep walking at night
Photo Credit: Elena Kalistratova
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a sleep behavior disorder characterized by walking or other activities a person engages in while still asleep. It is a pattern of complex behaviors that originate during slow-wave sleep. When a person is in deep REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep the body releases a chemical that paralyzes the body. However, a somnambulist will not have this chemical trigger, therefore they are in a non-REM sleep and may be prone to sleepwalking.

This disorder affects approximately 1 to 15 percent of the population on a regular basis and 10 percent have had it happen at least once. It is more common in young children and teenagers than it is in adults. A person who sleepwalks may perform such tasks as sitting up in bed, walking, eating, getting dressed or may even leave the house and go for a drive in the car. A sleepwalker will be hard to arouse during an episode. This is in contrast to normal REM dreaming. A person in the stage of REM sleep may move be somewhat ambulatory due to actions in a dream but can generally be woken from the dream easily.

This phenomenon varies in intensity and frequency and the disorder seems to stem from many different sources and not from one identifiable cause, such as a chemical imbalance. The source of the disorder was once thought to be entirely psychological and an extension of dreaming but it is now understood to be a complex combination of one or more factors. For example, it might be a combination of psychological, physiological as well as chemical interference (alcohol or drugs). However, the source of sleepwalking also varies according to age. The source for younger sufferers stems from more physiological problems which they often grow out of. In older sufferers the cause may be from alcohol, drug abuse or stress.

Children between the ages of 4 and 12 are the most common sufferers of sleepwalking, however, while pre-adolescents make up the larger number somnambulism, as it is observed in adults, increases in severity and frequency with age. It is reported that more boys sleepwalk than girls and it is between the ages of 11 and 12 that the most number of cases is reported. Also, many children tend to grow out of it and because of this, it is surmised that there are other sources for sleepwalking that may relate to the physiology of the younger body and mind that does not relate to adulthood.

Sleepwalking also seems to occur with more intensity or frequency in a person who is sleep-deprived and a sleepwalker often will not remember the incident at all. It is also a common misconception that it is dangerous to wake a sleepwalker. It is, in fact, more dangerous to not wake a sleepwalker. This is due to the actions that can be done by a sleepwalker. A person might drive a car, walk out into traffic, try cooking, etc. All of these actions are highly dangerous to a person who is asleep and unaware of what they are doing.

This disorder can be just a mild annoyance to some but can also be a life-altering disorder to others. Sleepwalking is more serious than aggressive so the danger lies more with self-injury than injuries to others. Sleepwalkers are not allowed in the Armed Services at least partly due to the damage they can cause themselves and also partly to the fact that they are around dangerous equipment. Treatments can range from relaxation techniques to anti-depressant medications (which alter behavior).