What are Sleep Attacks?
Sleep attacks are the sudden strong urge to sleep at otherwise abnormal times, such as the middle of the day. These urges can range from sudden onset of tiredness to an irresistible urge to sleep. This is not the same as getting sleepy after a big meal or because of sleep deprivation – rather, they strike suddenly, seemingly randomly, and can be quite powerful.
Because of this, true sleep attacks can be dangerous. For example, having a sleep attack in the middle of driving, operating a heavy piece of equipment, etc., could lead to injury or loss of life. For this reason, people who experience sleep attacks may want to seek the attention of their doctor or a sleep specialist immediately.
What Causes Sleep Attacks?
Sleep attacks are most commonly associated with narcolepsy. The old cliché depicting someone with narcolepsy falling asleep in the middle of doing something are actually a depiction of a severe sleep attack. Usually, sleep attacks are not so severe that someone falls asleep immediately (though it can happen), but they are usually severe enough for someone to need to go lie down for a few minutes. Not all narcoleptics suffer from sleep attacks, but it is a hallmark symptom of the disorder.
Other hallmark symptoms of narcolepsy that may accompany sleep attacks include:
- Being tired all the time
- Sleep paralysis, which may be accompanied by hallucinations
Sleep attacks, essentially, are caused by REM sleep showing up when it’s not supposed to.
What is it Like to Experience a Sleep Attack?
Sleep attacks come on without warning, suddenly, and seemingly randomly – there’s no specific pattern to when/how they come. You suddenly feel extremely tired: maybe you have time to excuse yourself and go lie down somewhere quiet, or maybe you suddenly feel so tired that you just have to put your head down and sleep where you are.
While sleep attacks come without warning, people with narcolepsy can usually “feel them coming” before the sleep attack hits, though the “warning time” is small. These sleep attacks come in the middle of just about anything: lectures, unstimulating activities, or vigorous activities like sex or working out.
A sleep attack may also involve the victim continuing what they were doing (typing, driving, talking) without any recollection of what happened – they cannot recall their actions. This poses great safety issues.
What Should You Do If You Have Sleep Attacks
We all experience episodes of sudden tiredness from time to time, and sometimes without any clear reason. But chronic sleep attacks are a different story – and they will likely interfere with your daily activities like work, school, and driving.
If you are experiencing sleep attacks with frequency, you may consider consulting with your doctor or a sleep specialist immediately. After that, you may do a sleep test where you are monitored for telltale symptoms of narcolepsy in order to either provide a diagnosis or rule it out as a possibility for causing your sleep attacks.