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Debunking Sleep Myths: Should You Wake a Sleepwalker?

Conventional wisdom says no, but sometimes it’s the only way to handle a dangerous situation. Learn how to negotiate this tricky scenario.

Between 1-15% of the population experiences occasional sleepwalking. It usually occurs during the first part of the night during NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, when the muscles are not paralysed like they during REM sleep, allowing people to move about while not being conscious of their actions.

If you live with someone who sleepwalks, you know how surreal it can be and you may be unsure how best to handle it. After all, urban legend suggests that waking a sleepwalker could cause a heart attack, coma, or even brain damage. While such outcomes are highly unlikely, there are still risks involved in waking a sleepwalker—and in sleepwalking itself. Learn more about what happens during this odd situation—and how to best handle it.

A Stress Response Sleepwalkers are thought to be caught between the states of wakefulness and deep sleep. Their brains are often active enough to trigger movement but not active enough to wake up. It is possible, therefore, that by waking a sleepwalker vigorously (for instance, physically shaking them) you might surprise them, causing stress in the form of a higher heart rate and blood pressure.

Watch Out for Aggressive Reactions There are three stages of NREM sleep, including a phase of deep sleep. While in this deep sleep state, a sleepwalker may startle at being woken, provoking a “fight or flight” response that causes them to lash out at the person who woke them. In some cases, the sleepwalker may even try to attack the person who wakes them up.

Sleepwalking Is Dangerous Despite the challenges of waking a sleepwalker, leaving them alone is not usually advisable either. Sleepwalkers may unconsciously put themselves in risky situations, like walking outside, falling down stairs, or breaking a glass while trying to get a glass of water.

How to Help a Sleepwalker If someone in your family is prone to sleepwalking, try this: Instead of waking the sleepwalker, first try and gently guide the person back to bed, without fully waking them. The sleepwalker is likely to be in such a deep state of sleep that they will not awaken. Turn the person towards the bedroom and walk nearby, trying to avoid physical contact as much as possible.

Waking a Walker If you must wake the sleepwalker, you can do so by making a loud, sudden noise from a safe distance away. Staying out of close range will help prevent you from being hurt by the alarmed sleepwalker, who is likely to be extremely disoriented and may possibly feel attacked.

If you or someone you know sleepwalks regularly, a visit to the doctor may help determine whether the sleepwalking is related to another medical condition. A doctor can also arm you with the best strategies on how to stop sleepwalking for good.


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