Quick Dose: Should You Wake Someone Up While They Are Sleepwalking?
What Happens in the Brain When You Sleepwalk
Published March 2022
There seems to be a universal myth that you should not wake someone up if they are sleepwalking because they may hurt you or themselves.
The truth is you should wake them up if they are in danger or putting someone else in danger. But, most times, the best option is to lead them back to bed.
It is hard to wake someone up when they are sleepwalking because they are in deep sleep. If you wake someone up aggressively while they are sleepwalking, they may be startled because their body is in fight-or-flight mode. Most of the time, sleepwalking is harmless and does not affect sleep quality. A person who sleepwalks may have no memory or just a vague recollection of sleepwalking the next day.
Sleepwalking Versus Acting Out Dreams
There are four stages of sleep:
Stage 1. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM): You transition between being awake and being asleep.
Stage 2. NREM: Your body temperature drops and your heart rates slows.
Stage 3. NREM: This is your deepest sleep where your muscles relax and your brain activity slows down.
Stage 4. Rapid eye movement (REM): Dreams occur and your body becomes immobilized, but your brain activity increases. Your eyes move rapidly.
Sleepwalking happens in stage 3. The front part of your brain, which controls executive functioning and memory, sleeps while the back part of your brain, which controls motor function, is awake. This explains why people who sleepwalk can do things like open doors.
When the opposite happens and the front of your brain is awake while the back part is asleep, it can result in a REM sleep behavior disorder. This may cause you to act out your dreams. REM sleep behavior disorders happen in stage 4 of sleep. When most people are in REM, their bodies are paralyzed. But, this is not the case for people with REM sleep behavior disorders. They may wake themselves up because they are acting out visual, action-packed or intense dreams. People with REM sleep behavior disorders will remember the dream when they wake up. They may find themselves falling, leaping out of bed, or punching or kicking a sleeping partner or themselves.
- Sleep Medicine Physician Hrayr P. Attarian, MD