The alarm clock sounds, pulling you from blissful slumber into the waking world.
Most of us identify with those first few groggy moments when the body shifts from a state of sleep to wakefulness. But for some people, this typically gentle transition is marked by confusion, disorientation and odd behavior, such as answering the phone instead of the alarm or stumbling into a wall instead of opening the bathroom door.
Informally known as sleep drunkenness disorder, these bleary episodes are usually triggered by a forced awakening and can last a few moments or many minutes. Sleep drunkenness disorder may affect up to one in seven people, says the American Academy of Neurology.
Waking Up Confused
Contrary to the name, sleep drunkenness has nothing to do with alcohol. In fact, it’s not a medical term at all but rather a colloquial name for what sleep medicine specialists call sleep confusional arousal or in more extreme cases, sleep inertia.
“When we go to sleep, our bodies naturally transition to a sleep state. While our bodies sleep our brains are doing a whole host of things,” says Dr. Jonathon Marcus, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Strong Sleep Disorders Center.
“Sometimes, when the body makes the transition from being awake to sleep, or vice-versa, funny things can happen.”
Confusional arousal occurs when a person shifts from being asleep to awake and begins to do simple, automatic behaviors without being completely awake. After a few minutes the person will either fully wake up or fall back asleep.
The phenomenon is part of a group of medical sleep disorders that also includes sleepwalking, sleep talking and night terrors. These are often benign conditions. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore them, as they can often be symptoms of a bigger problem.
Do Not Disturb
Dr. Robert Israel, medical director of the Rochester Regional Health System’s Unity Sleep Disorder Center, says he doesn’t like the term “sleep drunkenness,” because it doesn’t shed light on the seriousness of the condition.
“I don’t use the term sleep drunkenness. I see a person with insufficient sleep,” Israsel says.
Traveling, anxiety, taking sleeping pills or other medications, snoring, sleep apnea and even being sick—anything that disturbs the integrity of sleep and causes it to be disrupted or fragmented—is likely to increase your chance of experiencing confusional arousal.
It’s difficult for adults to recognize their own sleep deprivation because it creeps up on them slowly over time, Israel says. Signs include sleep confusional arousal and being sleepy during sedentary activities such as meetings, driving, or working on a computer.
In contrast, sleep deprived children tend to be hyperactive while awake.
“Youngsters can’t concentrate and are often misdiagnosed with attention deficient disorder,” Israel says.
Get Some Sleep
If you show symptoms of sleep deprivation, Israel and Marcus say you should talk to your doctor. Before taking medication, he may suggest treatment options including behavioral intervention, like establishing healthy sleep habits and routines.
Take care of your sleeping and waking health by getting the recommended amount of sleep each night.
“The average human needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night,” Israel says. “Get the sleep you need to age well.”