Sleepwalking is one of the parasomniac sleep disorders and refers to an unconscious waking state during sleep. Learn here what is behind the myth of sleepwalking and how it happens that we wake up from sleep without consciousness & memory and walk through the night.
Table of Contents
- What is sleepwalking?
- What happens during sleepwalking
- Causes and triggers of sleepwalking
- Is sleepwalking harmful?
- Avoid sleepwalking
What does sleepwalking mean?
Sleepwalking, also known as "somnambulism" in the scientific community, is a sleep or waking disorder that is one of the so-called parasomnias (sleep interruptions). The myth is more common in children, but up to 7% of adults also occasionally wander in their sleep, according to doctors. The unusual state in which we wake up without properly waking from sleep, wander around the home, and have no memory of the night's excursion the next day, lasts only a few seconds to minutes in most cases and usually takes place mainly in the bedroom. Why we wander in the night can have different reasons and, depending on the severity, can also pose serious dangers.
What happens during sleepwalking
During sleepwalking, some areas in the brain are awakened from sleep and activated while another part continues to sleep. Affected persons are thus put into a state between wakefulness and sleep and are, so to speak, "incompletely awake". Various studies from sleep research show that during sleepwalking, those areas of the brain that control our movement and motor functions are as active as when we are awake, whereas other important areas, such as the brain areas responsible for memory formation and interaction with the environment, do not deviate from their typical activity during sleep.
Thus, our brains continue to sleep, which is why we are as if in a trance during wandering, with little to no important neural and brain functions such as orientation, pain perception, and our general ability to interact and respond. As a result, sleepwalkers may get up, walk around, or even eat a meal, but be unresponsive and have no memory of being awake the next day.
Causes and triggers of sleepwalking
The causes of this unusual phenomenon are not yet fully understood. Sleepwalking occurs exclusively in the deep sleep phases or in the transition from deep sleep to waking. Thus, even though it is often assumed, it has nothing to do with dreaming and cannot even take place in a dream sleep phase (REM sleep), because here the so-called sleep paralysis usually protects us from uncontrolled movements.
Scientists suspect that deep sleep in sleepwalkers is altogether more prone to disturbances and less stable. During sleep, they react more sensitively to external (sounds, light or touch) or also endogenous stimuli (urge to urinate, stress, pain), which then trigger the incomplete awakening. And the maturity of the central nervous system could also play a decisive role in the stimulus response during sleep and influence whether someone sleepwalks or not. This would also explain why children are affected more often than adults. At the young age of 4 to 8, the brain is still developing and the central nervous system is not fully developed.
Incidentally, according to researchers, the children of sleepwalkers have a 60% risk of becoming sleepwalkers themselves, as a tendency to sleepwalk could also be genetic and related to the inherited maturational development of the central nervous system.
An overview of other possible triggers for sleepwalking:
Is sleepwalking harmful?
Most of the time, those affected cannot even remember the nightly excursions the next morning and only learn that they are sleepwalking through the presence of another person. Sleepwalking is basically a rather harmless sleep disorder that occurs rather rarely anyway, especially in adults. Nevertheless, the "half-awake" state also harbours dangers due to the uncontrolled activity, for example when sleepwalkers unconsciously leave the house or handle dangerous objects such as scissors, knives etc.. Affected individuals are not fully conscious during these moments and are unable to assess risks or respond adequately to danger. If you or a family member suffer from occasional sleepwalking, it is therefore advisable to secure the sleeping area and, for example, lock doors and windows at night or remove potentially dangerous objects from the bedroom.
How can I avoid sleepwalking?
Illness, stress or lack of relaxation can put a strain on the nervous system and increase sensitivity to stimuli during sleep. A calm and undisturbed sleep is therefore a good prerequisite for avoiding startling or waking up from deep sleep and for preventing sleepwalking in the first place. Unless there is a serious medical condition behind a tendency to sleepwalk, it may help to purposefully wind down before sleep and encourage both physical and mental relaxation to promote overall sleep and avoid nighttime awakenings.
Watch out. You've probably heard that it's best not to wake sleepwalkers - and for good reason! The sudden awakening from deep sleep can not only be extremely surprising, but also confusing for the person concerned or even lead to panic, aggressive or unpredictable behaviour. It is better to gently guide sleepwalkers back to bed, where they can usually quickly regain their composure and continue sleeping.
Sleepwalking refers to the unconscious mixed state of being awake and asleep, where the body is active but the mind continues to sleep.
Sleepwalkers awaken incompletely from deep sleep and usually cannot remember being awake.
Possible causes of sleepwalking are a low level of maturity of the nervous system and a low sensitivity to stimuli during deep sleep, for example due to stress, mental strain or illness.
Sleepwalking is basically not harmful, but it can lead to dangerous and risky situations.
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