Most sleep problems are so common and relatively minor, that we’ll discuss them with casual acquaintances; however, some sleep problems are so alarmingly problematic that we’ll deny their existence until they threaten to disrupt our families or jobs.
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Called “parasomnias,” this group of sleep disturbances produces abnormal body movements, emotions and behaviors as someone falls asleep, while they sleep or while they are waking up. Doctors divide these disorders into two categories: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) parasomnias and rapid eye movement (REM) parasomnias. The most noticeable and dangerous of all parasomnias is sleepwalking.
The Sleeping Body
Restorative sleep features three distinct, dreamless stages, plus the most active period of each sleep cycle the REM stage. During REM sleep, your heart rate increases, you breathe faster and dream. You also experience muscle paralysis called REM atonia preventing you from acting out your dreams.
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, usually happens during the first part of the sleep cycle and only once a night. While more common in children, adults can start sleepwalking when sleep deprived, unusually tired or when running a fever.
Signs And Symptoms Of Sleepwalking
To determine if you or someone in your family is sleepwalking, pay attention to your home during the night and in the morning. Have you heard unusual footsteps after a child’s bedtime or found small items moved after a night’s sleep? If so, somebody might be sleepwalking. Other signs that someone is sleepwalking are:
Facial Expression: A sleepwalker’s face may show no expression and the eyes may look vacant or glassy and seem to stare at something in the distance.
Movement: Clumsiness usually accompanies sleepwalking. The sleepwalker may have an uneven gate, balance problems and collisions with items in familiar spaces. Sleepwalkers might slowly stroll around a room or run as if they are trying to escape.
Responses: Questioning the sleepwalker will yield slow but simple answers, if an answer is given at all.
Behavior: The sleepwalker may urinate in an inappropriate area or scream if he or she is in the midst of a night terror. He or she will be difficult to wake up and confused if awakened during a sleepwalking episode.
Anticipatory awakening may help sleepwalking in both adults and children. First, keep track of when the sleepwalker starts roaming. Once you see a pattern, wake the sleepwalker a few minutes before he or she normally roams. Keep the sleepwalker awake for at least five minutes before letting him or her go back to sleep.
Some adults find that adding meditation and/or self-hypnosis to a regular bedtime routine helps end their sleepwalking.
Getting more sleep, coupled with better stress management, can help sleepwalkers of all ages. If the sleepwalker finds his or her condition embarrassing, dangerous or threatening, or if an existing psychiatric condition triggers the sleepwalking, it’s best to seek medical advice for treatment.
Sleepwalking adults may also have medical conditions triggering their nocturnal adventures, including restless leg syndrome, nighttime asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, nighttime seizures, heartburn and cardiac arrhythmia.
Living With Sleepwalking
Sleepwalking is rarely dangerous to the sleeper; still, ensuring safety is important. Keep items with sharp edges out of reach, lock all doors and windows at bedtime and keep floors uncluttered.
If the sleepwalker’s bedroom is on the second floor, consider moving it to the ground floor to prevent falls. Keeping adult sleepwalkers safe may mean taking a few more steps though. In addition to basic safety measure, keep car keys locked away!
While sleepwalkers may experience daytime drowsiness, anxiety and depression, waking during an event causes no harm. If you find living with a sleepwalker or your own sleepwalking stressful, take heart, as you are in good company.
Lee Hadwin, a British artist, amazes the Edinburgh Sleep Clinic with a talent that blooms only while sleepwalking. During his episodes, he draws on anything he can find using crayons, pens or whatever leaves a mark. Other famous sleepwalkers include Stephen King, Mark Hamill and Jennifer Aniston, who reported setting off her home’s burglar alarm while sleepwalking.