If you’ve ever woken up while doing something other than laying in bed—or lived with someone who has—you know that sleepwalking can be more than a little disorienting.
But why does sleepwalking happen in the first place, and what does it mean for the people who do it? Here is a look at some of the fascinating facts behind this weird, zombie-like state.
What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a behavior disorder that takes place during the deepest stage of dreamless sleep. It usually occurs within one to two hours after falling asleep.
And despite the name, it can involve a lot more than just puttering around while conked out. Most sleepwalking episodes last for several minutes, and during that time, a lot can happen. Some of the things that sleepwalkers are known to do:
- Sit up in bed and look around in a confused manner
- Talk or shout
- Bolt from bed and run away
- Begin daily routines that aren’t usually done at night, like getting dressed
- Perform strange behaviors, like urinate in a trashcan, move furniture around, or climb out of a window.
No matter what they’re doing, a sleepwalker will usually have their eyes open, with a confused, glassy stare. Even so, they’re really and truly asleep, which means they probably won’t remember anything about the incident if you ask them about it the next day.
Why do people sleepwalk?
Sleepwalking is most common in children, especially those with sleep apnea or who experience bedwetting. But plenty of adults do it as well. According to the National Sleep Foundation, up to 15% of the general population sleepwalks.
What makes certain people more prone to sleepwalking than others? Like other sleep disorders, it’s something that tends to run in families. In fact, having a parent or sibling who sleepwalks makes you a full 10 times more likely to become a sleepwalker yourself.
Environmental factors also play a role. Being especially stressed, running low on sleep, or falling victim to chaotic sleep schedules can all increase your risk. So too, can drinking too much alcohol before bed. Taking sedatives, stimulants, drugs used to treat psychosis, and even antihistamines can make you more likely to sleepwalk.
Certain medical conditions can increase your odds for sleepwalking, too, including fever, abnormal heart rhythm, acid reflux, nighttime asthma, nighttime seizures, sleep apnea, and psychiatric disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, say WebMD experts.
Is sleepwalking bad for you?
According to the Mayo Clinic, occasional sleepwalking episodes aren’t a big deal. But you should talk to your doctor if they start occurring more than once or twice a week, lead to a dangerous activity that injures you or others, or causes significant sleep disruption.
Here’s why: Sleepwalkers might be a-snoozin’ while they’re a-strollin’, but research suggests that regular sleepwalking episodes can negatively affect your sleep—and more.
In a 2013 SLEEP study of 200 adults, those who experienced frequent sleepwalking episodes were more likely to feel sleepy or fatigued during the day, have trouble sleeping at night, and experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.
What’s more, all that unconscious moving created a real potential for getting hurt. Nearly a fifth of sleepwalkers in the study reported injuries like bruises, nosebleeds, and fractures. One participant even sustained multiple fractures and serious head trauma after jumping out of a third-floor window.
Can you wake a sleepwalker?
Some people think that you shouldn’t rouse a sleepwalker because it could shock or even kill them. But experts say the chances of that happening are infinitesimal—“about as likely as somebody expiring from a dream about dying,” wrote Robynne Boyd in a 2007 Mental Floss article.
More likely, a sleepwalker who’s brought back to reality would probably just be startled, disoriented, and confused. But there’s also a possibility that they could become violent and unintentionally hurt the person that woke them up.
Still, letting sleepwalkers go about their merry, zombie-like way can pose a danger to them and others. To keep everyone safe, experts recommend gently turning a sleepwalker around and helping them get back to their bed. If they resists, stay with them to make sure they steers clear of harmful objects or situations. And if you have to wake them up, do it by making a loud noise instead of shaking or touching them.
Can you prevent sleepwalking?
Though regular sleepwalking can pose health risks, doctors say that more often, it’s a harmless condition that tends to go away on its own. Still, there are plenty of things that you can do to lower the chances that you or a family member end up sleepwalking in the future:
- Get enough sleep. Fatigue can lead to sleepwalking. Make sure you’re getting enough shuteye so that you don’t feel tired during the day.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Whether it’s meditation, a soothing bath, or quietly reading a book, finding time to unwind can reduce sleepwalk-triggering stress.
- Find other ways to reduce stress, too. Find a way to let off steam, like exercising or talking with a friend.
- Look for patterns. Have someone note when your sleepwalking episodes occur and for how long. This can be helpful in figuring out whether certain things are triggering your sleepwalking.
Have you or someone in your family ever-experienced sleepwalking? How did you deal with it?
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.