What is a Sleep Attack?
Sleep attacks are the sudden, often irresistible urge to sleep at otherwise odd times, such as the middle of a meeting. They come quickly in that one moment you are doing a particular activity normally, and in a very short period of time you suddenly feel like you just woke up and need to go back to sleep. Sleep attacks can be a serious safety problem in certain professions and during certain activities like driving.
Sleep attacks are not the same as post-meal tiredness or “hitting your wall” at night, though they are of a similar flavor (just a lot more intense). They are usually associated with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, and frequent sleep attacks are a primary symptom of this sleep disorder.
What Does It Feel Like to Have a Sleep Attack?
Sleep attacks hit very quickly, and often without any warning – though people who experience them chronically report feeling one come on before it hits. Sleep attacks often hit at random times, without any specific pattern to when they hit. Sometimes it may be during sex or exercise, sometimes it may be when watching TV or in the middle of a meeting.
Regardless of when it comes, the feeling is this: a sudden wave of tiredness and the irresistible urge to sleep comes, not terribly unlike when you wake up in the morning after little sleep, and every part of your body tells you to close your eyes and go back to sleep.
These irresistible urges may be intense though still allow you to do things like excuse yourself from a meeting and go to your car/office to rest. They may be so intense that you don’t really have the ability to react, but only to put your head down until the attack passes.
What Causes Sleep Attacks?
Sleep attacks are basically when REM sleep shows up when it’s not supposed to, causing sudden and strong tiredness.
Sleep attacks are most commonly associated with narcolepsy. When many of us think about narcolepsy, it’s of somebody passing out mid-sentence. What this actually depicts is a severe sleep attack.
Such sleep attacks, while not common, can happen, though the person may continue speaking/typing without any recollection later of doing so (similar to sleep talking/walking). Not all narcoleptics suffer from sleep attacks, but it is a hallmark symptom of the disorder.
Sleep paralysis is a scary sleep disorder symptom, such as depicted above, that is commonly associated with sleep paralysis
Other hallmark symptoms of narcolepsy that may accompany sleep attacks include:
- Being tired all the time
- Sleep paralysis, which may be accompanied by hallucinations
What to Do When You Have a Sleep Attack?
What to do if you have a sleep attack depends on how severe it is. People with narcolepsy who have regular sleep attacks report ensuring that they have a “plan B” for when a sleep attack hits, for example:
- When in new locations scoping out potential rest areas should a sleep attack hit
- Working at occupations where they have the flexibility to go out to their car/close office door and rest when a sleep attack comes
- Ensuring that employers know of the sleep attacks so that, should one hit, they can rest in a break room
- Try and avoid situations where a sleep attack could be potentially dangerous
People who experience severe sleep attacks may have less time (or no time) to react to the sleep attacks. In such cases, people who are prone to more severe attacks may need to take even more conservative precautions to daily life.
What to Do If You Have Frequent Sleep Attacks?
If you are experiencing sleep attacks regularly, it is probably a good idea to consult with a sleep specialist and/or your doctor. For people who experience regular sleep attacks, a sleep study is often one of the first things that is done in order to help rule out a potential diagnoses, particularly for narcolepsy.
It’s also helpful to keep a sleep journal in the days leading up to your appointment, importantly capturing information like:
- Time of sleep attack
- Duration of sleep attack
- Intensity of sleep attack
- What you were doing at the time of the sleep attack
This well help answer important questions like:
- How often the sleep attacks come
- If there is a pattern to the sleep attacks
- How severe they are
Is There Treatment for Sleep Attacks?
Unfortunately, there are no specific cures for sleep attacks. However, people who experience them can take measures to help reduce their frequency:
- Get plenty of rest every night! This entails good eating/drinking habits, regular exercise, and creating a good room to sleep in
- Try and avoid charged situations, as some report high stress and/or emotional intensity as triggering
- Choose work environments that allow you to address sleep attacks as they come
- Keep a journal to understand whether specific situations or contexts make you more prone for a sleep attack
- Try and see if you notice any changes in yourself directly before a sleep attack so that you have more time to prepare for them in the future
If you struggle from sleep attacks or have more questions, please contact us immediately – start by taking this free online sleep test.