Sleep Drunkenness in Mental Health

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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Sleep drunkenness, or confusional arousal, refers to periods of time after waking, when the person is completely confused as to where they are. The experience can last from a few seconds to several minutes.

If you take antidepressants, your risk of experiencing sleep drunkenness roughly doubles. Other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and depression are also known to increase your chances. Sleep apnea is another known contributor. In and of itself, the condition isn’t harmful, but it can potentially lead to situations that are: More about that in a moment.

Here’s an example of sleep drunkenness I came across last year:

Tom and his wife are an elderly couple who went to visit their son. Tom had slept badly the night before travelling. After a long drive and an active evening, he went to bed early. At around 3 a.m. he woke with a jolt, sat up in bed, and shook his wife awake. He knew exactly who she was but he was completely baffled by his surroundings. It took a while for his wife to remind him who they had come to see and where they were.

That place between deep sleep and being fully awake can be thought of as the zone for sleep drunkenness, and it’s actually quite common. Research by Stanford professor Maurice M. Ohayon, M.D., D.Sc., Ph.D., claimed just over 15 percent of his 19,136 study volunteers had experienced at least one episode of sleep drunkenness the previous year. The report, published in the journal Neurology, went on to say half the sample experienced one or more episodes a week and 30 percent said their confusion lasted 15 minutes or longer.

If you’ve ever watched a child being roused from a deep sleep you’ll have a rough idea of what sleep drunkenness looks like. That groggy, bleary, mumbling, want-to-go-to-sleep look, is typical. Movements, moaning, agitation, and crying may also occur and when a parent tries to give comfort, they find their child doesn’t respond. It can be a distressing few moments for parents if they’ve never experienced it before.

Sleep drunkenness is actually just one kind of sleep disorder in the category of parasomnias. Others you may have come across include sleepwalking and night terrors, but there are several others including, for example, night epilepsies.

In adults, episodes are thought to be more common in those who sleep fewer than six hours a night. According to Dr. Ohayon’s research, less than one percent of all cases had no known contributor. The situation for adults who get very little sleep is usually resolved by sleeping more.

Earlier, I said potentially harmful situations arise from sleep drunkenness. Adults may mumble something incoherent and go back to sleep. Other times, as with Tom, they may speak perfectly normally. Some will have good recollection the following morning and others may struggle to recall anything. A very few may become irritable or even aggressive. One recommendation Dr. Ohayon makes is that shift workers, such as pilots or doctors, who make life-or-death decisions, need time to allow their bodies to fully recover if they have been roused from sleep.

If you experience sleep drunkenness, it may be worth speaking to your doctor. There are many reasons why a pattern of sleep might be disturbed, but if this results from work stress, depression, alcohol consumption, or medication, your doctor may be able to help.

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