Is Sleepwalking a sign of mental illness?

Sleepwalking is related to other mild disorders of sleep and is more common in the young. Medically it’s unlikely to be harmful unless you walk into danger. And treatment is available.

What’s more, if you were a sleepwalker when young the chances of your children being sleepwalkers are quite high.

Some children are habitual sleepwalkers. The oddest case I saw was a little fellow who lived next door when I was a medical student.

Every second night, clad in a long, white nightgown, he could be seen prowling around the front garden or walking up the footpath – often half a kilometer or more from home.

He would frequently wander down to the fowl house and cowshed at the bottom of the property. These were the days when much of Sydney’s North Shore was semi-rural.

No harm ever befell him. He would be found by his parents after a search – usually wide-eyed and totally not with it.

He would quickly settle back into bed, close his eyes, and wake up the next day unaware of his nocturnal excursion.

If awakened from his trance-like state he would sometimes cry hysterically and uncontrollably. Bul on waking naturally, he remembered nothing of what had happened.

Now, 30 years later, he is a strong, stalwart, masculine fellow, perfectly fit and totally normal in all respects.

Other cases can be more dangerous. I used to treat a woman who lived on the third floor of a home unit block. She invariably walked on to her balcony and, several times suddenly awoke on the brink of disaster. She lived in fear that one night she would topple over the rail on to the concrete pavement below.

Medically, sleepwalking is unlikely to be harmful – if there is no physical danger.

Sleepwalking is related to other mild disorders of sleep and is far more common in the young, although, as the British Medical Journal recently pointed out, adults are less likely than children to come to the doctor on account of sleepwalking, night terrors, tooth-grinding, bedwetting or rocking and rolling during sleep.

These disorders are all lumped together because they tend to occur at a similar level of sleep.

Normally a person drifts into “orthodox sleep” – as the doctors call it. It is also called EEG slow-wave sleep.

EEG stands for electroencephalograph, the recorder which traces the sleep pattern.

About 75 percent of sleep is in this “orthodox” state.

However, after about an hour or more, some people drift into a deeper sleep, called “paradoxical” or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

It is during “paradoxical” sleep thal dreaming, sleepwalking, night terrors and the various other oddities take place.

One of the characteristics of this is the vividness of the situation at the time, whether it be in visions, dreams, terrors, or walking. This is followed by a complete lack of memory of the events.

The little fellow next door was totally unaware of the things he had been up to and indeed would never believe stones about his sleepwalking. He would merely laugh and accept it as a good joke when later recounted to him.

The woman on the third floor was usually unaware of what occurred unless she woke up straddling the balcony, or was seen by somebody who later reported the incident, or else found evidence of her journeys next day doors opened, slippers on the balcony, etc.

Fortunately, the outcome of all this is quite reassuring. Seldom will any harm occur.

“Sleepwalking, or night terrors with blood-curdling groans or shrieks, will generally diminish as the anxiety-provoking events recede in time.” the BMJ says.

“Talking in sleep is also more common when daytime anxiety runs high but, like sleepwalking, tends to run in families and the spouse or relatives should be reassured that nothing serious is betokened.”

Adults, particularly people living alone who run the risk of serious injury such as the woman on the third floor should definitely seek treatment.

The BMJ suggests the use of diazepam, a tranquilizer and muscle relaxant, available on prescription.

A period of treatment with diazepam has been found to alleviate sleepwalking in the few adults who frequently experience the problem, the BMJ says.

The drug prevents the deepest sleep and reduces anxiety, the journal adds.

Doctors interested in medical hypnotherapy have also scored remarkable results. This form of treatment is becoming more and more popular.

By alleviating tensions, stresses, and anxieties the risk of sleepwalking and other disturbances is often greatly reduced.

Those who prefer drug-free therapy often opt for this form of treatment. It is preferable to visit a doctor who has been particularly trained in this special skill. Your own doctor could refer you to a specialist.

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