Why You Shouldn’t wake up a Sleepwalking friend!
You’ve been saving all year for that once in a lifetime trip. You’re going on a skiing trip to Switzerland’s famed alpine resort town, St. Moritz. To say you’re excited would be an understatement; your last vacation consisted of seeing your ill-tempered aunt in Reading, Pennsylvania. For a week you split your time between throwing rocks at freezing rats and shoveling dirty snow. You’re by no means wealthy, and to do this trip you had to agree to share a room with a stranger. No biggie, it’s not like you haven’t put up with snoring before and another man’s bad bathroom habits. But that first night, the moon casting shadows on those pristine slopes, this guy just got out of bed. As if in a trance, he opened the door. The cold rushed in. You grabbed his arm…You should have gone to your aunt’s house again.
The question is, why should you have visited your aunt again in Reading, where you saw animals entombed in snow banks and it got so cold you had to de-ice your eyes in the morning. Let’s finish the story. Where were we?
The sleepwalking friend
It’s the first night. You haven’t skied yet. That happens tomorrow morning, bright and early. Your roommate is named Jack. He seems ok, a nice enough guy. You go to bed at the same time. He falls asleep first it seems. The next thing you know you are awoken by a thud. It’s Jack. He’s gotten out of bed and quite scarily is walking towards you. It doesn’t help that he’s built like a tank.
“What’s up?” you say.
You then realize he’s not quite awake. You’ve never seen a sleepwalker before, but it’s obvious now that you are witnessing it. It’s like a person is both awake and asleep at the same time. Jack is expressionless, as if in a trance, like his mind has been taken over by something.
Should you wake up a sleepwalker?
Your first thought is, should I do something? What does a person do in this situation? You must have skipped that Sleepwalking 101 class in high school. What’s the protocol here? You think you remember something you heard on the street about sleepwalkers. What was it? You think for a while…Ah, you remember. If you wake them up, they will have a heart attack on the spot. Hmm. Would that be manslaughter?
Ok, so that’s a lot of thinking in the time Jack can walk across a small room, but hey, in the movies trapdoors can take a long time to close.
You’re now pretty sure you don’t want to interrupt Jack’s jaunt across the room. Just leave him be. He’ll go back to bed or wake up and apologize and tell you he does this kind of thing all the time and there’s nothing to worry about. I must have gone a bit “off-piste” he’ll say, and you’ll both laugh.
But no. The idiot walks over to the door. He opens it and a great gust of wind rushes into the room. The guy is half-naked and he’s going to go outside in the freezing cold. He might fall down those stairs, those slippery, hard concrete steps, and you can’t let that happen. You grab his arm.
Right, so in your case, everything then went really badly.
The moment you grabbed him he became agitated to the point of shock. You’ve just wrestled someone out of deep sleep, not light sleep. You don’t know what was going through Jack’s mind, if anything at all, but you’ve startled the hell out of him on the stairs, under the bright moon, with an ominous-looking sharp mountain peak in the distance.
What happens when you try to wake up a sleepwalker?
You shouldn’t have shaken him. In shock, Jack’s natural reaction was to fight back. In his half-awake mind he was being attacked. He turned on his hip and thrust his elbow into your jaw. It was you then slipped, and went tumbling down those chalet stairs. You went off-piste, ending with a head-on collision with an iron railing. Jack’s still startled at the top of the stairs and you are bleeding from the brain. He’s looking at a manslaughter charge and you’re about to lose your charge for good. You should have gone to Reading.
Ok, so that’s the end of the story. Not exactly a Hollywood ending, but let’s just call it European realism. You were in Switzerland after all.
You really shouldn’t wake up a sleepwalker, or you might end up like the guy in our story. Let’s now explain a few things.
During the night we go through various periods of light and deep sleep. Some of that deep sleep, the time when we dream, is called Rapid Eye Movement sleep, or REM sleep as it’s generally called. REM sleep can get longer as the night goes on. This is the good stuff. We need it. Not enough of it can leave us groggy in the morning.
When you’re in this deep sleep stage you are in fact kind of paralyzed. We’re not kidding you. Your body wants it that way because if it wasn’t the case you might start acting out your dreams. Imagine being in bed with your lover and suddenly you start pulverizing the imagery enemy you’re dreaming about. Yep, you might end up hurting her or him. It’s happened, many times. Some folks don’t get paralyzed enough.
You might have people who feel half awake but stuck in a dream, i.e. sleep paralysis, but you also have people who are in deep sleep but start moving. They might just sit up, or they might go downstairs and open a fridge… or they might climb up a 130 foot crane or even murder their mother-in-law…Those two things really happened.
Another stage of deep sleep comes just before REM and it’s aptly called non-REM sleep. This is when people usually sleepwalk.
Brain studies have shown that when a person sleepwalks, technically known as a somnambulistic state, parts of their brain are fast asleep while other parts are awake. There’s an imbalance, and this kind of puts the person in two worlds. Nope, they won’t walk with their arms right in front of them and they won’t make weird groaning sounds, but they might walk around in a kind of daze. They don’t even require lights, like Jack, because their brain knows where to go.
In this trance-like state people can do a lot of things. There have been cases like we said when people walked long distances, climbed things, killed, and on their way got in a car and started driving. With that in mind, surely you should stop them before they get hurt or hurt someone else.
The thing is, sleepwalkers are in deep sleep, so if you suddenly wake them up you are going to startle them. You might have heard that the shock could produce a heart attack, or induce a coma, but that’s not true at all. Forget that. What you will do, though, is shock them. There have been cases when an awoken sleepwalker just lashed out, just as Jack did…and you know what happened after that.
How should you handle a sleepwalker?
What you should do is try to guide them back to that warm bed without actually waking them up. This might be possible since they are in deep sleep mode. You’ll have to be gentle when you do this, so you can lightly maneuver them. If that doesn’t work, stand your distance, and make a loud noise. At least you’ll be out of harm’s way.
Research has shown that about thirty percent of children aged five to twelve will have at least one sleepwalking episode. Let’s be honest, when you startle someone of that age, you should be safe from the possible lashing out bit. But adults sleepwalk, too, and Jack was a rather large and strong 22-year old. You might also be surprised the damage a kid can do, but we’ll get to that.
What happens is this sudden awakening can produce activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, and this bit plays a part in fear and anxiety, what we sometimes refer to as fight or flight. That’s why you shouldn’t just grab them by the arm tightly or push them around. You might awake a demon, even if that person is generally peaceful.
Don’t let them go out!
If you do manage to guide them back to bed or make a noise that awakes them, you might also save their life. This is a double-edged sword, because while you shouldn’t just startle them, it’s best not to let them walk down some stairs. They might remember some things unconsciously, but they are not really in full control.
People have been known to cook meals while sleepwalking, and we don’t need to point out the danger in firing up the grill while half asleep. That person might set the house on fire. As for handling knives, well, it’s not the best thing for a somnambulist to do. Then again, please don’t think about grabbing hold of a sleepwalker just as he’s cutting an onion with a 7-inch blade. It’s a fine line; you have to be on your game when faced with a sleepwalker.
It gets worse.
There was one case we found in which a teenage girl ripped a door off its hinges while sleepwalking. We kid you not. This girl could not have done that while awake. She was of small build. Where did she get the strength from? The article didn’t say, but we can say that it might be better to keep your distance when someone is pulling off doors.
There are other cases of people punching holes through windows and kicking in walls, so let’s just say some sleepwalkers are in an agitated state. There are some cases when a person got into bed with someone else and started doing you know what, which even with a lover could be very frightening for the woken person, but where strangers are concerned this is a serious matter. Imagine if Jack would have tried that.
In another case a teenage girl walked out of her house in her underwear and carried on walking down a busy street for half a mile. It was 2 a.m. We don’t need to tell you how dangerous this could have been in many ways. She was awakened when a car honked its horn.
Does it get any worse?
Then there are the very worst cases, in which terrible things happened and people lost their lives. In 2011, a 55-year old woman in New Jersey drowned when she fell into a lake. How did police know she was sleepwalking? Well, she was in good mental health and that night some people saw a woman walking barefoot in the freezing cold wearing nothing but pajamas. Her friend also said that the woman had been having sleepwalking episodes of late.
Other people have fallen off balconies or climbed out of windows to their death. We found one news report of a man in Chicago who went out sleepwalking in the winter when it was bitterly cold. He died of hypothermia. He was taking sleeping pills at the time, and those have been blamed for some episodes of sleepwalking.
A sleepwalker might injure themselves or their walk might be a walk of death, but there have been cases when they seriously hurt or even killed another person.
The most well-known case is arguably that of a man in Toronto who got in a car and drove to his mother-in-law’s house and killed her. He later drove to a police station and told the cops that he thought he had killed someone. This man was sometimes nicknamed the “gentle giant” and he had no reason for doing what he had done. He adored his mother-in-law. Others have been attacked by sleepwalkers but thankfully didn’t lose their lives. When the sleepwalker awoke in many cases they were incredibly shocked at what they’d done.
In yet another case, a man was possibly asleep while trying to fix a swimming pool pump in the middle of the night. His defense argued that his wife tried to wake him up, and then he killed her in his half-asleep state. The neighbor saw this and called the cops. When they arrived they asked him who was in the house and the man replied his wife and two kids. He didn’t know what he’d done. He was still convicted of murder in the end.
We don’t mean to scare you with these grim cases, and they are extremely rare. In most cases the person won’t do much at all. But some sleepwalkers might exhibit complex behavior and that could be dangerous for them. It’s better they don’t get too far and do too much, but just remember, if you startle them they are not really in their right mind. Do what we said and be gentle, and if that doesn’t work, stand back and make a noise.