If you’ve ever been so startled by your alarm clock that you reach for the phone instead of the snooze, you’re in good company. A new study finds as many as one in seven people may suffer from a disorder called “sleep drunkenness.” It’s described as that feeling of confusion or amnesia we sometimes experience after suddenly waking up.
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In this study, Stanford university researchers questioned more than 19,000 people about their sleep habits. They found one out of seven of them reported having an episode of “sleep drunkenness” (also called “confusional arousal”) within the past year. Also, more than half reported more than one episode per week.
This finding came as a surprise to researchers. “It showed that sleep drunkenness is much more common in the general population than we’ve thought,” says Jessica Vensel-Rundo, MD, who treats sleep disorders though she did not take part in this study.
Researchers say 84 percent of the people with sleep drunkenness also had a sleep disorder, mental health disorder, or were taking psychotropic drugs, such as antidepressants.
Of the study participants with sleep drunkenness:
- 37.4 percent had a mental health disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, panic or post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. The highest odds were observed people with bipolar disorders or panic disorder.
- 31 percent were on psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants.
But researchers say the amount of sleep you get may also play a role. Both long and short sleep times are associated with the disorder. That’s because 20 percent of the people who’ve experienced “sleep drunkenness” admitted getting less than six hours of sleep per night, while 15 percent of them were getting at least nine hours.
Dr Vensel-Rundo says that many times, when people experience chronic sleep drunkenness, there is an underlying problem.
Experts say these episodes of confusion after sleep have not received the same attention as sleepwalking, but in some cases, the consequences can be just as serious. Some people act aggressively without any memory of doing so. In one extreme case, a man woke in such a confused state that he fell off the deck of a ship.
More studies are needed to pinpoint an actual cause for sleep drunkenness, but animal studies give us some clues. When animals are awakened suddenly, it seems to trigger a startle reflex, allowing them to respond quickly to potential threats. Imagine how a deer might freeze as you approach, body tightening with eyes and ears scanning for danger.
This reflex is a trait shared by humans. In babies, a loud noise that startles them will trigger this reflex. The infant will suddenly bring his arms and legs toward his chest. When, as adults, we are foggy with sleep and suddenly awakened, our brains may respond to it as a potential emergency, where quick action — and not thought — is needed.