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Why some people respond to stress by falling asleep (theatlantic.com)
154 points by pedalpete 1445 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

There's a great classical example of this in the Book of Jonah:

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

That passage had never made sense to me due to Jonas' (previously apparent) bizarre behavior. Thanks!

This is consistent with my anecdotal experience. I sleep a lot more when I'm angry, frustrated and overwhelmed. It's a vicious cycle. It's pretty cruel. The inverse is also true: I'm alert and chirpy when I'm "on the ball".

Also interesting to read the comments:

"It is a commonplace among cops that a suspect who falls asleep while awaiting interrogation is almost certainly guilty. I think this is a related phenomenon."

"I've had this response - after a particularly heated argument with my mother. After leaving her house I began driving home and actually had to pull my car over, get in the back seat and sleep for about thirty minutes. It stands out because it was so odd, overwhelming and had never happened before."

My bro-psych take, Dreaded Personal Anecdotes division:

In sports, prior to big games, I tended to doze in the locker room; my brother threw up. He'd be hair-on-fire ready for mortal combat; I hoped the other team wouldn't show up. But I was 'cool' and he was considered half-crazy.

I'm the worst procastinator I know, and it really kicks in when a project is 99% complete. A deadline extension is almost as good as an orgasm for me. Without an extnension, I'll estimate the remaining time needed to finish the job, then calculate what time I have to start to hit the mark--then set an alarm and hit the rack. Hugely painful and I hate myself throughout the process, but I cannot make myself work normal hours during crunchtime. Maybe my brain is processing final steps, but I doubt it.

Related? My memory of personal events has always been very good. Now I find myself more and more distracted, anxious, sleepless over trivial matters going back to my youth: a/the missed spelling word in 3rd grade; a stupid comment on a junior high date; a missed shot in a meaningless high school basketball game. The list goes on and on.

Yet I function.

But now my teenage son won't leave the house, resists therapists and I don't blame him. I just happen to get paid while living on largely on the Net.

Just sayin'.

I'm similar, except for never doing sports. I also seem to produce new regrettable trivial episodes regularly..

Whenever I felt overwhelmed by my workload, I found myself fighting the urge to just give up and sleep. The result was a great deal of assignments in college that I had left only partly done. At the same time though, I found my most productive moments to be at the times just before a deadline. I would finish work in a fraction of the time it normally took me.

I think the difference between the two situations is the feeling of hopelessness. When there really is no way to finish everything, it's hard to do anything other than just give up.

that period of high productivity sounds like borderline hypomania (which is often triggered by stress and/or sleep deprivation). did you tend to experience fatigue after those periods of high productivity?

This is the first I've ever heard of hypomania, which I often have in conjunction with sleep deprivation. I also had never heard of Bipolar II disorder.


It's not as dangerous as the kind of mania you get with bipolar 1, but if it occurs to you often, you might want to speak with a doctor. As I understand it, it's difficult to completely control without medical assistance and can have negative effects on your health.

Yes, but these moments were usually followed by an all-nighter. This is my first time hearing of hypomania, but wouldn't the fatigue just be a side-effect of sleep deprivation or the followup of exhaustive mental effort?

Yes. However, one of the side effects of hypomania can be prolonged sleep deprivation/sleeplessness, which creates a pretty nasty feedback loop with days (or more!) of fatigue or outright depression at the end of it.

This was an awesome article filled with a lot of lay science! I only wish the author did a follow up with any strategies learned on how to combat this.

Does anyone experience this phenomenon and have any strategies to prevent it?

Presumably, those with this tendency are diagnosed with narcolepsy, or have narcoleptic tendencies. If you're not diagnosed. It may be worth getting a diagnosis.

I haven't been officially diagnosed, but basically, the latest research on dealing with narcolepsy is a combination of lifestyle and drugs.

In the realm of drugs, there is provigil or adderall as a wakefulness agent or xyrem and some others for a providing deeper sleep. Usually these are life changing in the beginning, but then they lose their efficacy due to tolerance.

On the lifestyle front, theres really only 3 things, bur they are hard. Diet, exercise and sleep hygiene.

The easiest to explain is exercise. Do it. Daily.

Next is sleep hygiene. Consistent bed time and wake up time. Bed only for sleep and sex. Dimmed lights proor to bedtime and a consistent routine. This is harder to do.

The most controversial/hardest is diet/nutrition, especially with the anti vitamin, anti-picky eater sentiment that may be part of ones social circles. So here goes my personal research and anecdotal evidence.

Im on my phone, so forgive the terse explanations.

Universally accepted: low carb, high fat diets.

Nutritional supplements: google for narcolepsy nutrition. Some of the things are choline, b vitamins.

Gluten free (controversial) - the short of it is that, gliadin destroys orexin producing neurons. Longer story at zombieinstitute.

Tyrosine - longer story at some narcolepsy blog by a phd gal, iirc.

Caffiene - the reviews are mixed on this one. Soneswear by it, others claim sleep debt incurred. For me, a cup of coffee or energy drink once every 2 days. Everyday incurs sleep debt for me.

Ketogenic diets help. Paleo with lots of veggies, less meat.

Smaller portions to control insulin load on the body.

My biggest game changers were magnesium citrate (~300mg 2x a day for 600mg) + provigil + glutenfree + lchf. Potassium citrate also helped. Multivitamins seemed to be a waste. I didnt get much with tyrosine and carnitine. Also avoiding soluable sugars (juicy fruits, dextrose, maltodextrin) and going for high fiber (low glycemic) was a big help.

Actually. Gliadin doesnt destroy the orexin producing neurons, but narco is an autoimmune disorder, where gliadin's presence brings on igG antibodies, which destroy the orexin producing neurons.

Absolutely fascinating and awesome note!! Thank you very much for taking the time to write it!

This is completely different, but I was reminded of the fainting goats.


You'd guess that evolution would have taken care of the genes that cause this.

Ahh, actually it's because of evolution that this happens. The idea is that some of the goats will stay behind so the rest of the herd (herd of goats?) can get away.

Not sure if the same but college math classes threw me into intense drowsiness, almost narcolepsia, I couldn't hold my head just by looking at the board. Coffee intake did nothing. Just moving away from these classes brought me back.

I had exactly the same experience in one of my data structures classes. It was fairly late in the morning (maybe around 10:30), but as soon as the prof started speaking I conked out. My only explanation was boredom -- I ended up switching majors, and only experienced that level of drowsiness in one other class during my academic career.

I can't help but think that it means "you're in the wrong place."

I've experienced similar, no matter the class start time. I think I'd agree with your assessment of "you're in the wrong place" not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because of the presentation and environment in which it occurs.

For example, in my high school AP Calc class, I often couldn't stay awake because I picked up on the concepts very quickly whereas my peers did not and I would quickly get very bored when being lectured on the same topics day after day. Contrast that with the amount of books on Mathematics I currently own, that my favorite language is Haskell and that I currently am employed writing software.

It was almost as if my body had developed a heuristic for how useful today's class was going to be and reacted accordingly. The same sort of thing happened through college (Psych, Business, etc) whereas I was known to read psychology textbooks for fun when I was very young.

I need to add that unlike you, I was actually completely left behind on these classes. Younger I felt what it was to understand too fast and I just doodled while people where catching up. But in college it was the opposite.

Sounds more like you were both sleep deprived and not up to speed on the material.

Sleep deprived not at all. As soon as I quit the room I was fresh again. Up to speed is part of the answer, still, the effects were quite astounding. The only experience close to that was blood sample fainting.

The answer is simple: because no voice is heard, bed is warm, and sleeping kills time without a lot of thinking, only minimum consciousness is needed. Retrospective consciousness is completely removed during sleep, which is what causes people to actually think and remember things.

When this happens to me the sleep is always instant and deep-a huge difference from when I spend about an hour trying to fall asleep at a regular time. I sometimes wonder if being in a perpetual state of stress would improve my regular sleep.

Shit, that's me. I thought it was something strange wanting to sleep when the pressure is really on, and that other people are not like this...

And guess how I feel bootstrapping my project right now... :/

The funny thing is that I do think I can change pretty much everything that is bad, while this "learned helplessness" does make sense in the same time, if I really dig into things. So I guess what I say and what I do need to be reconciled. Though I have some guesses what issues I need to process, at least.

I find this to be pretty helpful as long as the resulting naps are pretty short - especially if I'm stressing out about work. I usually wake up with a much better understanding of whatever problem I'm dealing with. Debugging goes quickly, and I find it easy to reason about systems I was completely confused by an hour or two before.

This was interesting to read. I have done this all my life and wondered why. It only happens after major events for me, but I'm out like a light for hours usually. I'll feel like I haven't slept in days.

"There are so many things to do, and then I take a nap"

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