When you think of the word sleep, do you feel a sense of comfort, recalling restful nights and sweet dreams? Do you regret all the hours you didn’t catch a wink because you stayed up watching a movie or doing the homework you put off? Sleep does wonders for the mind and body, a basic human need — you simply can’t live without it. To some, however, the word fills them with a deep sense of dread and anxiety on top of all the comforting thoughts. They can’t escape it, and they feel trepidation. It isn’t any wonder when their sleep, in particular, might not consist of all hours of rest from the moment they drift into the dream world to the time they wake up. Within that period, anything could happen.
Most people’s worst experience with sleep might be a nightmare or two every now and then or just restlessness, but those with parasomnia can attest to the unusual behavior they experience while getting the snooze. Types of parasomnia can range from night terrors, sleepwalking, sleep talking, sleep paralysis, and more, but we’ll talk about sleepwalking specifically (Suni, E., 2020).
Sleepwalking is a phenomenon that occurs during the non-REM part of the sleep cycle (“Sleep terror,” 2017). Everyone has probably heard of it but very few have experienced it or seen it for themselves. Although it’s most prevalent in kids and goes away as they reach their teenage years, studies show that more than 3.6 percent of adults are prone to sleepwalking in the US (Ohayon, M., 2012). There is no cure for this, only treatments, and if proper measures aren’t taken, there can be serious consequences — both to the sleepwalker and the people around them.
In a state between sleep and wakefulness, a person can still perform functions that don’t require too much thinking, as if on autopilot. There are harmless cases where a person might just walk around in their bedroom, and there are more concerning ones where they might walk near a staircase and fall or leave the house. Then there are even more extreme cases where they might leave the house and go for a drive (“Sleepwalking,” 2017). It goes without saying how terrifying that is. But when you combine sleepwalking with night terrors, sleep itself becomes the nightmare.
I remember having my first-night terror in high school. In a state on the border of sleeping, I saw a black silhouette approaching my bed in the darkness and I suddenly had this innate fear and desire to get away. With a scream, I dashed into my sister’s bedroom right next door and slammed the door behind me, stubbing my toe along the way. There was supposedly a mysterious killer/monster in the room right next to me—and I went back to sleep on the new bed just like that. It was only when my mom woke me again, having come to investigate the source of the screaming, that the haziness left and I became aware of the line between dream and reality again. If she weren’t standing over me and questioning me, if I weren’t in my sister’s room instead of my own, if I didn’t have an injured toe, I would have credited the whole experience all to a dream and probably have forgotten it all by morning.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t my last night terror/sleepwalking episode, although they are very rare, thankfully. I learned that my grandpa, who is now in his 60s, has been plagued with this problem all his life, so I don’t bank on being free of them forever either. I remember my shock when my mom told me that he had once had a nightmare of being trapped somewhere during one of his sleepwalking episodes and, to try to escape, ended up slamming his shoulder into a window so hard that it shattered, with glass flying everywhere, and he fell through. Another time, when his friend tried to wake him, my grandpa started attacking him instead. I likely inherited my night terror, but now I can only hope it never goes to that extreme.
Though the differences in experiences vary, this is just the reality of those 8.4 million American adults. With children, you can hope that they’ll get rid of it as they grow older, but adults can get it at the most random nights when they haven’t put up any kind of measures. Like my grandpa, the biggest danger might not even be a staircase or a sharp object lying around, but their own strength. Research indicates that stress or sleep deprivation are factors that contribute to these episodes but taking care of all that just isn’t as easy as swallowing a pill or taking a medicine (Suni, E., 2020). The most effective treatment will take effort, patience, and understanding from the patient and the people around them because there just isn’t a real cure for it.
Ohayon, M. (2012, May 14). Sleepwalking more prevalent among U.S. adults than Previously Suspected, researcher says. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/05/sleepwalking-more-prevalent-among-u-s-adults-than-previously-suspected-researcher-says.html
Sleep terrors. (2017, September 12). Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sleep/nighttime-sleep-behaviors/sleep-terrors.html
Sleepwalking. (2017, July 21). Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleepwalking/symptoms-causes/syc-20353506
Suni, E. (2020, August 14). Sleepwalking – causes, symptoms, & treatments. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/parasomnias/sleepwalking