In the middle of the night, Corey Manchester climbed three steps from the basement, entered his stepmother’s room and asked how Aunt Nikki was. As a kid at the time, he wasn’t happy until he heard Aunt Nikki was fine.
“There is no Aunt Nikki,” says Manchester, now 47, from San Diego. “We don’t have Aunt Nikki in our family at all, on either side.”
Manchester walked in his sleep, and his stepmother was the first person to witness the behavior that has overshadowed him for the past few decades.
Manchester is one of about 3.6% of the population prone to sleepwalking. That number is from a revolutionary study from 2012 from Stanford University, which set the number higher than previously thought. It has been 30 years since that study since researchers published the sleep prevalence rate in the U.S., and there have been no updates since then.
The sleep-related phenomenon, also called somnambulism, is part of a broader category of sleep disorders called parasomnias, which include behaviors such as night terrors and.
Sleepwalking has an inherent mystery. Those who have experienced this may not know that they ever got out of bed, that there were no testimonies of the people they were with, or pieces of evidence the next morning. (Who peed on TV?) There may be a disturbing disconnect between your body and consciousness, which seemingly work separately from each other.
While this parasomnia is not a mystery that has been fully unraveled, it is one that sleepwalkers and those who study them have been facing for years – struggling with bodies that could get into trouble and how to get them back to bed safely. .
In the span of a few weeks around 7th or 8th grade, Jen Bennet began walking in her sleep. Her mother caught her rummaging through the drawers in the bathroom at night, descending the steps of their house – causing an alarm that her daughter might fall and injure herself during one of her night walks.
“I woke up [one] day and I just had a Ziploc bag with a goldfish [crackers] in bed with me, “said the now 26-year-old Oakland resident in California.
Bennett’s experience is not unusual. In fact, sleepwalking is most common in children, and they tend to outgrow it by adolescence, said Raj Dasgupta, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck Medical School at the University of Southern California.
Dasgupta himself has an 8-year-old daughter who walks in her sleep. He and his wife may be watchingon Netflix and see her enter the kitchen. It makes sense – sleepwalking most often occurs during non-REM sleep, so early in the sleep cycle. He will redirect her to bed.
“I always ask her in the morning, ‘Hey, do you remember going into the kitchen?'” To which she will reply, “No, not at all.”
This lack of memory is a key sign of parasomnia. What else happens in the brain during a sleepwalking episode is also unclear.
One idea was that sleepwalking occurs when areas of the brain associated with emotions and motor activity are awake, while areas that control memory and rationality are not. Without the latter keeping the former under control, things can get messy.
The result: “Behavior is regulated by some kind of archaic survival system like the one activated during a fight or flight,” Lino Nobili, a sleep researcher at Milan’s Niguarda Hospital, told Aeon.
A 2021 study from the University of Montreal and the Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal, published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology, examined the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in sleep walking and found that this may not be the case.
Instead of showing an elevated fight or flight reaction, sleepwalkers have shown more responses to rest and digestion in a sleep study, which is the way the body calms down after the danger passes.
“Although the causes of sleepwalking remain unclear, we know that while asleep sleepwalkers may experience abnormal interactions between the processes associated with excitement and deep sleep, even outside of their episodes,” the two authors wrote. In the relationship between excitement and poorly regulated deep sleep, maybe something is going wrong.
Why people walk in their sleep
In 2001, Troy Maddox was approaching his final test to get a black belt in kenpo karate. His instructor told him to visualize all the movements and techniques whenever he had the chance, whether it was okay in the store or while he was sinking into sleep.
So it’s no wonder that one night Maddox ended up in the middle of his bedroom, in an attitude, fighting off attackers who didn’t exist. This frightened his then wife, who woke up thinking that someone had broken in.
“Once she found out there was no one in the house and I was fighting airless … she yelled at me and made me pull out enough that I just went back to bed. But I didn’t even wake up,” the 51-year-old said. a resident of Louisville, Kentucky.
Needless to say, Maddox decided to stop mentally practicing karate before bed.
Researchers generally have some ideas about what the underlying causes can lead to sleepwalking. There seems to be some element of genetics at work – those with parents and siblings with parasomnias are more likely to experience parasomnias themselves.
According to Alcibiades Rodriguez, clinical director of the Sleep Disorders Program at NYU Langone Health, lack of sleep, anxiety, stress and the like have the potential to cause sleepwalking in those who are prone to it. Obstructive sleep apnea can be another underlying cause.
Sometimes the act of sleepwalking itself can cause anxiety.
“You start walking in your sleep and you become very anxious – the more anxious you are, the more you walk in your sleep,” Rodriguez said. “It’s turning into a vicious circle.”
Dasgupta also noted research that found that people with drowsiness, fatigue, insomnia, depression and anxiety may walk more often in their sleep.
Other triggers can be problems with circadian rhythms, such as severe jet lag. Emotional stress can be another trigger, as can certain medications, such as sleeping pills, and especially mixing them with alcohol, Dasgupta said.
Coping with sleepwalking
Thiery Sparks remembers the morning as a kid when he woke up somewhere else in the house than where he went to sleep. His parents even told him they had seen him up and around.
Now 30, Sparks, who lives in Salad, Texas, no longer walks in his sleep because he occasionally finds himself crossing half a room after dreaming that there is something like a raccoon in his bed.
He estimates that it happens maybe once in three months, he remembers. It was never enough of a problem to think about going to the doctor.
For many sleepwalkers this is the case. Dasgupta said children with classic sleepwalking rely on waiting until they grow out of it. Some adults participate in sleep studies. The point of studying sleep, however, is not necessarily to catch an example of walking in your sleep. Instead, it is necessary to find out what could be the underlying causes. In rare cases, your doctor may prescribe medication.
Sleepwalking can be dangerous if a person stumbles, falls or collides with something. It is not uncommon to come across frightening headlines about people walking in their sleep off cliffs while camping or falling out the window. There are also potential bedtime partners to consider who could end up targeting some sleepwalking activities.
And the conventional wisdom is that the sleepwalker does not wake up true, Dasgupta said, mainly because it can cause anger, fear, confusion and disorientation. The best course of action is to try to get them back in bed.
“I don’t feel like it will hit me in the face if I wake up my 8-year-old,” Dasgupta said, “but … it’s not a pleasant feeling … I wouldn’t wake up [sleepwalkers] up. ”
In San Diego, Manchester isn’t exactly sure how often he walks in his sleep. He lived alone for about 12 years, so it’s hard to say without a witness. He estimates that this has happened twice in the last five years.
“It simply came to our notice then [so] “The prevailing thing is that I will warn someone if we go on the road,” he said.
Still, he has a bunch of stories to tell – about a time when a college roommate asked him what he was doing on the roof, or when he woke up in a car on the way to the airport with his cousin (she told him I was very grumpy before leaving home ). The second time, a friend saw him calling his dog Buddha when the puppy was already sitting right next to him.
“It simply came to our notice then [about] those things you have nothing to do with, “Manchester said,” It’s always been weird. ”