In 1920, a silent film made in Germany and directed by Robert Wiene called “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was released and presented a sleep-walker named Cesare as a murdering tool of the nefarious Dr. Caligari. This put a dark spin on what had, previously, been the frequent subject of funny stories and jokes. The idea of moving around, eyes open, while the person’s brain is actually in a sleep mode sounds strange to anyone who has never experienced it or who has been with someone else who has experienced it. It is, however, a real disorder with evident symptoms and associated risks.
Although sleepwalking sometimes occurs in childhood, its causes are not understood. It just seems to happen to some kids. Parents find them walking about at night and they look awake but they are not. Most of the time, the child is simply and gently brought back to their bed and the episode is over. In most children, the somnambulism simply ceases as they get a bit older. It is hypothesized that a child’s mind makes less firm distinctions between waking and sleeping states and thus, s/he may be more susceptible to sleepwalking as a ‘normal’ function than are adults. Whether occurring in children or in adults, Somnambulism is regarded, diagnostically, as a “Sleep Disorder.”
In adults, the condition is most often associated with alterations in consciousness and/or brain functioning brought about by 1) alcohol, sedatives and other medication, 2) medical conditions such as partial complex seizures, or 3) fatigue and/or lack of sleep. The condition is often associated with anxiety. It can be, of course, dangerous.
To be in motion without the guidance of consciousness can lead to problems like simple accidents (bumping into things) or serious risk behaviors like walking into traffic or off a steep drop.
A person who is sleepwalking may sit up and look as though they are awake when they are actually asleep. They might get up out of bed and walk around, or do complex activities such as moving things around, going to the bathroom, or dressing or undressing. There have even been reported cases of people driving a car while they are asleep while others go to the refrigerator and eat!
The episode can be very brief (a few seconds or minutes) or it can last for 30 minutes or longer, but most episodes last for less than 10 minutes. If they are not disturbed, most sleepwalkers will go back to sleep. However, they may fall asleep in a different or even unusual place.
Common associated symptoms include talking non-sensically while asleep, having no recall of the episode when they awake, opening their eyes during sleep and often having a rather ‘blank’ expression on their face. The behavior often frightens whoever else may be with them at the time. Serious consequences, the horror the aforementioned film notwithstanding, are rarely reported.
There is no specific treatment for sleepwalking but there is a body of popular misconceptions about it.
Most commonly, many people believe that it is dangerous to awaken a somnambulist while they are having an episode. This is simply not true, although the person being woken up may come to consciousness with a bit of a startled reaction and may, indeed, be briefly disoriented. This is not terribly unlike what one would expect when awakening anyone from a normal, non-ambulatory, sleep.
With both children and adults, safety measures might need to be taken as the most serious risk of the behavior is that of injury. In some cases, adults have been able to benefit from the introduction of certain relaxing medications in instances where anxiety seems a likely precipitant.
Sleepwalking is Not a Joke:
Those who do not suffer from Somnambulism need to keep a watch on people they live with who do. Basic safety precautions are wise and should the behavior go on for a continuing period or if it not possible to awaken the sleep-walker, consultation with a physician is usually the first place to begin to see if some kind of profession intervention might be helpful.