You’re sitting at your desk at work, your eyelids start to sag and you can’t stop yawning. Your head droops to your chest and you’re jerked awake. Sound familiar? It’s something many of us have experienced; we just might not know the name of it. In celebration of National Sleep Awareness Week, we thought it would be a good idea to tell you about microsleep.

Microsleep occurs in short bursts –– from a few to several seconds –– and can happen to anyone, anywhere. You can’t control microsleep and sometimes it happens without you even realizing it. Sometimes you can’t even identify it, and it just seems like a loss of focus. If you’re lying on your couch bingeing the latest season of your favorite show, microsleeping isn’t an issue. However, there are times when a microsleep episode is extremely serious. 

What Causes Microsleeping?

While it’s associated with sleeping problems like sleep apnea, narcolepsy or insomnia, microsleep is the product of sleep deprivation. As one in five adults is currently sleep-deprived, it’s fair to say that microsleep instances probably happen more often than people realize. 

If you work night hours or just don’t get enough sleep, you’re at risk for microsleep. Research shows that reaction times at the end of a night shift are significantly lower when compared to times after a day shift. 

Identifying warning signs of microsleep:

  • Blank stare or zoning out
  • Sudden body jerks
  • Excessive yawning 
  • Slow blinking
  • Impacted recall of last few minutes

Microsleep fits somewhere between REM and NREM sleep. It’s a superficial sleep marked by slower theta waves in the brain rather than the beta waves present while awake. If you were to map your brain right before you experience microsleep, you’d see parts of it –– like the thalamus –– appear to be “offline” despite your brain being “awake.”

Is Microsleep Dangerous? 

In and of itself, microsleep isn’t a threat to your health. It’s what you’re doing when an episode strikes that poses the problem. I opened this story by setting a familiar scene. Allow me to set another one for a bit of perspective: You’re on the way to visit family a few states away. To avoid traffic, you decided to leave straight from work and drive through the night. You said you were going to stop when you were too tired to drive. But your eyes start to droop, and you suddenly feel the vibrations of the rumble strips on the sides of the highway. You’re awake now, but it could have ended differently. 

It’s easy to think you’ll never fall asleep while driving. But you can’t predict or control microsleep. Driving while sleep-deprived presents a genuine risk for you and anyone else on the road. A Research Gate study found that when sleep-deprived participants who drove a realistic car simulator had an accident probability of 35% during microsleeps. Going to work without sleeping enough is also a risk if you operate heavy machinery.

Studies show that even after you’re awake, microsleep compromises your decision-making capabilities. So if you can’t identify it to start with, then you can’t choose to stop the dangerous behavior. 

Tips To Avoid Microsleeping

Thankfully, preventing microsleep is as simple as taking a few steps to improve your sleep quality. If things like sleep apnea or other health conditions are standing in the way of you getting a good night’s sleep, speak with your doctor for help.

A few tips for getting better sleep: 

  • Create a nighttime routine –– Our bodies like predictable routines. You will get better sleep if you go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Create a nightly routine to help you wind down for the night. Whether it be yoga, reading or taking a bath, your body will thank you. 
  • Monitor what you eat and drink before bed –– Certain foods will help you sleep and certain things that won’t. Stay away from both caffeine and alcohol before bed for the best sleep possible. 
  • Regulate screen time  –– You’ve likely heard this one a million times, but it still holds true. If you’re looking at your phone, TV or computer before bed, the blue light emitted will slow the melatonin process of naturally falling asleep. Your best bet is to turn off all screens at least 45 minutes before bed. If you can’t do that, try some blue light glasses.

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

Microsleep is one of those things in life that everyone knows about without actually knowing the name. Many people just call it “falling asleep at the wheel,” but that’s not entirely accurate. That phrase gives the illusion there is a choice in the matter. Microsleep can happen anywhere and you won’t know it’s coming. It’s born from not getting enough sleep, so if you want to avoid microsleep entirely, you should do everything you can to get quality sleep.