HOW SLEEPWALKING WORKS
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How does sleepwalking work?
Have you ever seen someone sleepwalking? It’s a pretty
extraordinary phenomenon. Someone who is in a deep sleep while in their bed,
gets up and starts moving around, all while they’re still soundly asleep!
Sometimes they may just walk around, sometimes they might get up only to sit
down again and continue sleeping. Other times, they may even do very odd things,
such as start throwing fruit, or set the dinner table. There are many myths
about sleepwalking and many movies, television shows and other forms of
entertainment have played on the act of sleepwalking. The movie Dracula and the
play Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare have included their own aspect of
sleepwalking. But how really does sleepwalking work? And what makes a person
rise up from their sleep so that they can walk around and perform certain
What is Sleepwalking?
is known as somnambulism in medical terms and it’s one of many parasomnias. A
parasomnia is something that a person does involuntarily while they sleep such
as wetting the bed, grinding their teeth or in this case, sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking has been described by many doctors as an “error in timing and
balance” when the body is making its transition from sleeping to waking. And
this is despite the fact that people once thought that sleepwalkers were only
acting out their greatest fears or dreams while they sleepwalked. Another school
of thought on sleepwalking is that it’s an act of the occult, while many think
that it’s only a purely physical response.
There are many different beliefs when it comes to
sleepwalking. And one of those beliefs is that a person sleepwalking always has
the same general appearance: they are standing up with their eyes shut and with
their arms outstretched in front of them. This of course, isn’t always true
either. So before going any further, let’s define what “sleepwalking” is a
little further. The DSM-IV is a handbook that is used by medical professionals
and it defines sleepwalking by a few common characteristics.
One of those characteristics is that a person will
leave their bed while sleeping, and that this will happen most likely in the
third and fourth stages of sleep. These stages of sleep are known as non-REM (NREM)
sleep. During NREM, the brain goes almost completely quiet, but the body is more
active than during any other stage of sleep. This is when the body will toss and
turn, or when you might steal the blankets from your partner. However, because
the brain is almost silent, there is no dreaming that is taking place. Because
of this, it’s clear to see that people who are sleepwalking are not acting out
Another characteristic of sleepwalking as defined
by the DSM-IV is that it is difficult to wake someone up while they are
sleepwalking and they do wake up while they’re in the middle of sleepwalking,
they’ll be very confused and won’t remember anything that happened while they
were sleepwalking. In fact, they may wake up and act very anxious because they
are not in their bed, where they last remembered being. Sleepwalkers don’t
always have their eyes closed either, although this is sometimes the case. In
fact, most sleepwalkers tend to have glassy eyes and a dazed look on their face.
They will be able to perform many functions, in some cases, even driving. But
while they may look like they’re awake, they will still act very clumsy, bumping
into walls and banging their legs off tables.
Many people think that you should never wake a
sleepwalker. This is a myth although it’s never nice to startle someone when
they’re sleeping and trying to wake up a sleepwalker will definitely startle
them. And in fact, sometimes it’s necessary to wake up a sleepwalker because
sleepwalkers can do some pretty dangerous things, such as trying to get into a
car and driving. However, if you do need to stop a sleepwalker from doing
something that isn’t entirely safe, it’s usually best to just try and gently
guide them back to their bed.
Other characteristics of sleepwalking include that it’s affecting your work or
social life and that the person isn’t suffering from dementia or another
physical disorder. This latter characteristic is to eliminate any other reason
for the sleepwalking that might be due to physical problems. Sleepwalking can
also last a very short time, such as thirty seconds, to a longer period, such as
thirty minutes. It is most common in children and boys tend to sleepwalk more
than girls do.
Why do People Sleepwalk?
The thing that everyone wants to know about
sleepwalking is why people sleepwalk in the first place. Truthfully, no one has
yet found an actual reason why some people sleepwalk but there have been many
theories that have thrown around. Sometimes sleepwalking is referred to by
mental health professionals as a “disorder of arousal.” This means that while
the person has been in the deepest phases of sleep, something has awoken their
brain, which is usually very quiet, during these times of sleep. This means that
the person will now have an active body with a slightly active brain, which is
different than the active body and sleepy brain that is usually found during
this phase of sleep. However, because the body is still actually in stage three
or four of sleep, the body will remain in a deep sleep.
The fact that most sleepwalking occurs within
children is important and for this, there can be many reasons. One reason that’s
been proposed by some is that children’s brains are simply too immature to
understand the different phases of being awake and sleeping. Others though say
that it may actually be because a child’s brain grows so quickly. Consider that
a completely helpless newborn will be a kindergartener in five years that will
be learning how to read, and you can get an idea of just how quickly a child’s
brain develops. Because of this, it’s thought that while the brain is growing so
quickly, some areas might grow more quickly than others and that some aspects of
development might take precedence over other areas in some cases. In the case of
sleepwalking, fully understanding the difference between wakefulness and
sleeping just has not caught up in terms of development to the other areas of
It’s also during NREM sleep that a body releases
growth hormones and repairs itself. Because children grow so quickly and so
often, it’s thought that sleepwalking among children might have something to do
with these growth hormones. However, parents of sleepwalkers are often relieved
to know that children usually outgrow their sleepwalking tendencies.
But not all children outgrow sleepwalking and most
adults who sleepwalk also did it when they were children. If an adult starts
sleepwalking, and they’ve never done it before, it’s usually a good idea to see
a doctor. This can actually be a symptom of another disorder such as seizures,
Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Children can also often be helped with their
sleepwalking by setting a regular sleep schedule and reducing stress.
Aside from sleepwalking, there are many other
parasomnias that involve sleeping. One is sleep-talking, which is much more
common and usually fairly harmless and another is sleep-eating, which is where
people will consume large amounts of food while they are sleeping. This can be
harmless but sometimes, such as when a person is eating raw meat, can be very
dangerous as well. Sleepwalking itself is also usually pretty harmless but
because it can also be very dangerous, it’s important to get it looked into
because it could become a serious problem. Although there is no medication or
“cure” for sleepwalking, there are some changes in habits and lifestyle that can
help a person overcome sleepwalking if they feel as though they need to.