What Is the Connection Between Sleepwalking and Mental Health?

sleepwalking

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Although sleepwalking is somewhat common, especially among children, it is not a harmless occurrence. Most people are aware of the fact that sleepwalking can make a person vulnerable to injuries, but there are also strong connections between sleepwalking and mental health.

For example, some mental health conditions may make you more likely to experience sleepwalking. Moreover, sleepwalking can trigger or exacerbate several mental health conditions, and may have negative impacts on your relationships and quality of life.

Let’s take a look at the mental health impacts of sleepwalking, how to manage them, as well as how you can cope with sleepwalking in general.

What Is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a kind of parasomnia, or abnormal sleep behavior. A person who experiences sleepwalking is in an “in between” state of sleep and waking. Most bouts of sleepwalking occur within the first few hours of falling asleep and people who sleepwalk usually do not have any recollection of doing so.

Many people—about 18%—will have a bout of sleepwalking at some point in life, though sleepwalking is most common in childhood and is usually something that children grow out of. However, adults can experience sleepwalking as well. Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine found that about 3.6% of U.S. adults report an episode of sleepwalking in the previous year, which amounts to about 8.4 million people.

Symptoms

Sleepwalking looks different for different people and can vary from one episode to another. Contrary to popular belief, sleepwalking doesn’t even always include walking!

Here are some things that may occur during an episode of sleepwalking:

  • The sleepwalker may have a vacant expression on their face, glassy eyes, and be unresponsive if you try to interact with them
  • The person may wander, walk, or even run
  • They may attempt to get dressed, move furniture around, or do other activities around the house
  • Some sleepwalkers engage in sexual activity (called sexsomnia)
  • Some sleepwalkers may urinate
  • Some sleepwalkers may try to drive a car

Importantly, sleepwalking can be dangerous. For example, a study published in Sleep found that 57.9% of adult sleepwalkers exhibited violent behavior while sleepwalking. This behavior resulted in either injury to themselves or to others, and had negative impacts on the sleepwalkers’ quality of life.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking usually has multiple causes, and the causes of sleepwalking can differ from one individual to another. Some of the most common causes of sleepwalking include:

  • Genetics, as sleepwalking tends to run in families
  • Other sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, that interrupt one’s sleep
  • Illnesses and fevers
  • Chronic sleep deprivation
  • Migraines
  • Certain medications, including sleeping pills
  • Sleeping with a full bladder
  • Head or brain injuries

How Does Mental Health Affect Sleepwalking?

The state of your mental health, as well as a preexisting mental health condition, can cause you to sleepwalk.

One main trigger of sleepwalking is experiencing heightened or chronic stress. Some researchers have surmised that experiencing episodes of anxiety and anger throughout the day may increase the chances of sleepwalking in people who are prone to it.

Other research has found that people who sleepwalk have difficulty managing their feelings of aggression. Experiencing unresolved conflicts during the day, and living with unprocessed trauma may also be contributing factors for sleepwalking.

Additionally, there are certain mental health conditions that may increase a person’s risk of experiencing sleepwalking, including:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Alcohol abuse and substance abuse disorders (alcohol itself can cause sleepwalking)
  • Schizophrenia

What Effect Does Sleepwalking Have on Mental Health?

Just as certain mental health conditions and struggles can trigger or exacerbate sleepwalking, sleepwalking itself can lead to mental health challenges.

Here are some of the mental health impacts of sleepwalking:

  • People who sleepwalk do not experience restful nights of sleep, and may be prone to increased fatigue, which can impact mental health
  • Sleepwalkers may experience embarrassment and shame over what they do while they are sleepwalking, and the fact that they have no control over their behavior while sleepwalking
  • Sleepwalking can strain relationships, especially the person or people with whom you share a sleep space or living space
  • People who sleepwalk are more likely to experience anxiety or depression
  • Sleepwalkers are more likely to experience night terrors, which can negatively impact their overall well-being

How to Cope With Sleepwalking

If you experience sleepwalking, it isn’t just something you should ignore. Sleepwalking can impact your health and wellbeing, and it can cause physical harm to yourself or others. The good news is that there are several steps you can take to manage the condition.

The first thing you should do is make an appointment with your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist. This way, any underlying health issues that you are having that may be causing your sleepwalking can be addressed, including conditions like sleep apnea. Additionally, your healthcare provider will consider any medications you take that may be contributing.

Treatment plans for sleepwalking also need to include ways of decreasing the risk of injury. So, you should ensure that any sharp objects are locked away and out of reach. Windows and doors should be securely locked. Some people set up alarms that go off if they get out of bed and begin to wander.

If your sleepwalking seems to be caused by a mental health condition or by heightened stress in your life, addressing this with a therapist can be helpful. Working on stress relief and management with a therapist can aid in decreasing episodes of sleepwalking. It can also help you manage the stress that the sleepwalking itself may be causing you.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can help you manage the anxiety that might trigger sleepwalking or that might result from sleepwalking. If you live with mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, or schizophrenia, speak with a doctor or psychiatrist about how these conditions may be impacting your sleepwalking and what treatment plans would be appropriate for you.

A Word From Verywell

Being a sleepwalker can be a lonely and upsetting experience, and many people who sleepwalk experience deep shame and embarrassment. But sleepwalking isn’t something to be ashamed of. You didn’t do anything wrong, and the behavior is something that is largely out of your control.

That being said, it’s important to seek help if you are experiencing sleepwalking, as sleepwalking can be dangerous to yourself and others, can be a symptom of a larger health issue, and can have concerning impacts on your mental health.

If you or someone you love is sleepwalking, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider, a sleep specialist, or a mental health provider. Help is out there, and you deserve it.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.