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Too Much Zzz? A Comprehensive Guide on Sleep Attacks

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People who have narcolepsy frequently face judgement from others. They may be labelled as “lazy” or “rude”. Worse still, individuals with narcolepsy may not realise that there’s a medical reason for their inability to stay awake. 

As a result, they often withdraw from social situations where the symptoms of daytime drowsiness lead to negative attention. Narcolepsy can also impair one’s ability to drive, hold down a job, or complete schooling.

Read on for a breakdown of what “sleep attacks” are and what you can do to take back your life.

Narcolepsy is no joke

Although narcolepsy has been the brunt of late-night talk show jokes and even a Honda commercial, it’s no laughing matter. Approximately 1 in 2,000 people suffer from this condition. 

Because so much about it remains a mystery, the average time it takes to receive a proper diagnosis is between 10 and 15 years. 

One of the first signs of narcolepsy? Daytime drowsiness. This chronic tiredness, in and of itself, can have a debilitating impact on your life. And it can take the joy out of each new day. But narcolepsy doesn’t stop there.

Sleep attacks 

Over time, individuals with narcolepsy may develop “sleep attacks” What are sleep attacks? They involve suddenly falling asleep without warning. And this is what pop culture likes to make fun of.

But narcolepsy sleep attacks can leave subjects disoriented, confused, or even injured. And the duration of the sleep differs from patient to patient.

Some individuals only experience “micro sleeps” that last for seconds, while others may be incapacitated for several minutes during sudden sleep attacks. 

If not adequately controlled, suddenly falling asleep can increase to several times a day, with devastating effects for those dealing with the symptoms.  

From driving a car to working a job and caring for young children, sleep attacks can impact every aspect of your life. 

But you don’t have to let narcolepsy rule your life.

Cataplexy and narcolepsy

Besides chronic fatigue and a progression into sleep attacks, narcolepsy comes with other symptoms that are often misunderstood. These include temporary loss of muscular control and muscle weakness. 

Symptoms often manifest in the following ways: 

  • Legs collapsing uncontrollably
  • Slurred speech
  • Double vision
  • Finding it difficult to focus
  • Head slumping down
  • Jaw dropping

These symptoms are known collectively as cataplexy. Sufferers may also experience emotional triggers such as laughter, anger, surprise, or excitement.

Attacks may last for a handful of seconds or many minutes. They may happen once a year or multiple times per day. Along with the other symptoms of narcolepsy, they can force patients to withdraw emotionally and socially.

Other symptoms associated with narcolepsy

As you’re beginning to see, narcolepsy refers to a host of symptoms, from sleep attacks to cataplexy. And the list doesn’t stop there. Sufferers of narcolepsy also complain of problems such as:

  • Sleep paralysis
  • Headaches
  • Hallucinations
  • Restless sleep, including vivid nightmares
  • Depression
  • Automatic behaviour

If you or someone you love is experiencing these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss neurological health. Narcolepsy is not your fault, and you shouldn’t have to live in shame or fear because of it.




Helen Bradfield did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh.  She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.

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