Microsleep: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How You Can Prevent It

Have you ever accidentally fallen asleep for a split second? If so, you’ve experienced microsleep. Learn why it happens and what you can do to stop it.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Apr 18th, 2022

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You’re sitting in class or at a work meeting, and suddenly, you feel your head snap back up. Unintentionally, you fell asleep for (hopefully) a quick second and rapidly came back to reality.

While embarrassing, falling asleep during meetings or class is rarely life-altering. However, this faltering consciousness, known as microsleep, can have dire consequences.

Bouts of microsleep have been blamed for countless car accidents and mistakes at work. It’s even been reported that microsleep might be to blame for certain airline crashes, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.

Understanding microsleep—what it is, what causes it, and what you can do to stop it—is critical for anyone who experiences this condition. In this article, we will give you the information that you need to protect yourself from microsleep-related accidents and embarrassment.

What is Microsleep?

Microsleep is a sudden, accidental, brief period of losing consciousness lasting less than ten seconds. It can happen whether or not your eyes fully close, and you may not even realize that it’s happened.

Staring blankly into space without full recognition of what’s going on around you, coming to with a quick jolt of your body and head, or suddenly realizing that you’re not aware of your surroundings are signs that you may have just had a microsleep episode. Other common signs include:

  • Dropping something
  • Swerving while driving
  • Not noticing when a stop light changes color
  • Not hearing what someone is saying to you
  • Involuntary body shake or head bob
  • Hitting the highway’s rumble strips
  • Car accidents or running red lights
  • Experiencing a quick jolt of adrenaline as you come back to attention

Unlike traditional sleep which is broken down into two categories (rapid eye movement sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep), microsleep doesn’t fit into either of these categories. These brief bouts of sleep don’t do anything to help your body and mind recoup the sleep that it so desperately needs.

Causes of Microsleep

There are three primary causes of microsleep:

  1. Insufficient sleep the night before
  2. Staying awake too late
  3. Sleep disorders

Most of us have experienced one of the first two causes. When you haven’t slept or you need to stay up late, you’re likely to experience a bout of microsleep as your body and mind desire a bit more shut-eye. This is why late-night and drowsy driving are both so dangerous.

For others, sleep disorders are the cause of microsleep episodes. Many sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and insomnia, can reduce the quantity or quality of sleep, leading to daytime fatigue. Others, like narcolepsy, are unique in that you can get plenty of sleep, but still be unable to stay awake throughout the day.

Who Is at Risk for Microsleep?

If you’re a new parent, work night shifts, or have a sleep disorder, you are at a higher risk of microsleep bouts than the general population. Additionally, anyone who is experiencing a lack of sleep, partaking in a monotonous task, or staying up late is at an elevated risk.

6 Tips to Help You Prevent Microsleep

1. Prioritize Sleep

It can be easy to make excuses not to go to sleep at night. Whether you’re out at a party with friends or binge-watching your favorite TV show, practicing moderation is important. When you don’t get enough sleep, episodes of microsleep are highly probable. Not only can this drowsiness make your following day less productive and enjoyable, but it can also put yourself and others at risk of an accident. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night.

2. Treat Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are a common cause of microsleep due to trouble sleeping at night or staying awake during the day. If you struggle to get enough sleep, you feel tired no matter how much you’ve slept, or you frequently feel tired during the day, consult a sleep specialist to find out if you suffer from a sleep disorder. Treating these disorders is critical for avoiding microsleep episodes.

3. Take a Power Nap

Midday naps (or nighttime naps if you’re a night-shift worker) can be hugely beneficial if you feel sleepy during the day. Maybe you can line up an afternoon nap with your infant, take a 30-minute nap in your car on your work break, or enjoy a pre-late-night adventure nap to give you energy as you stay up late.

For some people with insomnia or other sleep disorders, a period of rest in the middle of the day can offer symptomatic relief. Even 20-minute naps can help to invigorate your mind.

4. Drink Caffeine

While you shouldn’t consume caffeine 24/7, it can be an incredibly useful tool when you’re struggling to remain awake. Caffeine can increase your alertness and speed up your reaction time. Add in coffee or caffeinated tea when you’re going into a meeting or getting sleepy when driving. Even if it’s late at night, if you might fall asleep when driving, a bit of caffeine is well worth it.

5. Workout

Exercise has been shown to boost our energy levels. It changes our body temperature and gets blood pumping throughout our bodies. Add in a workout when you’re feeling sleepy, or before you must do something that raises your risk of microsleep.

6. Break Up or Spice Up Monotonous Tasks

You know those activities that are just, well, boring? Things like driving at night, sitting through certain lectures or meetings, or taking a road trip? Plan ahead for these activities, adding in breaks or incorporating strategies to add some mental stimulation.

For example, you could break up road trips into 2-hour chunks, with sightseeing or food breaks planned along the way. You could play pump-up music while driving, or even before a meeting that you know causes you fatigue. Even bringing in tea or coffee that you really enjoy to a meeting can awaken your senses and give you something to do to keep your mind and body alert.

You Can Avoid Microsleep

If you’re someone who experiences microsleep, take the necessary measures to boost your energy levels and avoid dangerous consequences. Try to get enough sleep each night, and don’t ignore it when you feel tired. There are many things that you can do to enhance your energy and avoid an unexpected episode of sleep.