Microbursts of sleep refers to periods of sudden somnolence that last from a few to several seconds. People who experience these episodes may doze off without realizing it.
It can occur anywhere, such as at work, at school, or while watching TV. Episodes of microsleep can also happen while driving or operating machinery, which makes this a dangerous condition. People may fall asleep at a stoplight, in a restaurant, at the theater, or at a work meeting.￼ In addition to the potential for serious physical harm to self or others, these bursts of sleep can cause embarrassment and secondary problems (hitting your head, work problems, falling on another person, ￼dropping or breaking items).
Microbursts of sleep happen when parts of your brain are asleep and other parts remain awake￼.
Warning signs of an episode of microsleep include:
- inability to keep eyes open
- excessive yawning
- body jerks and head bobs
- constantly blinking or widening eyes to stay awake
- sudden onset of severe fatigue
- short REM latencies (entering REM sleep very quickly)
- feeling foggy; not being able to concentrate on a task or conversation
- making careless mistakes (inattention to detail)
- slow processing speed and task completion
- impaired fine motor skills
Why does our brain go into a shut down and reboot? The biggest culprit is ￼sleep deprivation.
Causes can include:
- medical concerns (sleep apnea, restless leg and movement disorders, perimenopause, chronic pain, frequent urination)
- shift work: overnight schedules and changing hours make it difficult for our brains to adjust
- circadian rhythms that are irregular. Even DST can affect sleep for days to weeks
- medications: stimulants like Concerta and Adderall may result in fatigue and sleepiness when they ‘wear off’. Others cause excessive sleepiness if not timed properly, including antihistamines and even melatonin
- alcohol and substance abuse
- boredom: repetitive tasks; solitary work; long drives; excessive sitting
- ‘revenge insomnia’ is the tendency to purposefully stay up late binge watching, scrolling, chatting, gaming, after working all day. It’s reclaiming ‘me time’ with a cost and can be beguiling for those who work long hours
What to do:
- Address underlying medical issues. Sleep studies may also be required. A single study or examination may only reveal a partial picture.
- Get enough sleep. Prioritize rest and listen to your body. The average adult becomes sleepy after being awake for about 7-8 hours. Even with formulas for how much you ‘should be sleeping,’ how you sleep is highly individualized. More more info read: Got Sleep.
- Exercise and get daily sunlight during the day.
- When you feel tired, don’t push yourself into continuing to work. You’re not getting much work done anyway. Reboot by resting and starting again later.
- Reframe attitudes about resting. The old adages about ‘toughing it out’ are not helpful for our mental, cognitive, or physical health.
- Sleep well before road trips or long tasks. If possible, drive with a passenger. Avoid driving at times when you naturally feel tired, such as times you’re normally asleep, near dusk, or during your post-lunch or afternoon lull. Stop often and get out of the car.
- Talk to other people. Neuropsychological research shows that conversation and social interaction reduce sleepiness. One study also found that hearing your own name was more effective than other auditory input for attention during a vigilance test.
- Don’t rely on loud music. Loud volume won’t do much to keep you awake while driving. Some research suggests that the brain may not be registering auditory inputs during periods of microsleep.
- Caffeine helps a little. It takes a while to kick in and only provides a moderate effect for a couple of hours. You can also have a high tolerance if you frequently use caffeine.
- Take movement breaks. Fidgeting, stretching, and moving keeps the mind more engaged. Take regular breaks and stretch if you are sitting for long periods of time.
- Rest when you are tired.
- Most importantly, work with your own circadian rhythms, schedule, and responsibilities as much as possible. These vary. Micro sleep is our brain trying to function and rest at the same time. Work with it, not against it.
Related post, “We are Tired: on Mental Fatigue.”