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Zoning out during the day? It could be a microsleep

These little blips on the radar can be a big red flag.

Person yawns with hand over mouth in front of laptop at desk. Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImage

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It’s easy enough to shrug off spacing out or feeling as though your eyelids are getting heavy—we all pull that 9-to-5 grind, after all. But these moments could signal that you’re in need of more shut-eye.

One in three American adults don’t get enough sleep, according to the CDC. Microsleeps are one way that lack of rest might catch up with you—and though the name may sound harmless, they can be a dangerous phenomenon.

What are microsleeps?

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Microsleeps may feel similar to zoning out while at least part of the brain goes into a sleep-like state.

The name says it all: Microsleeps are short episodes of sleep where at least part of your brain goes into an inactive state. And in this case, short means incredibly short—microsleeps are generally less than a minute, and can be as brief as a few seconds.

In these moments, brain activity looks similar to the early parts of sleep onset, says Dr. Rebecca Spencer, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst Somneuro Lab. Some researchers classify microsleeps as stage 1 sleep—when the body transitions from wakefulness to sleep and the heart rate and breathing change in response. It’s also the part of the night when you twitch on and off.

Researchers have also found that during these episodes people don’t perceive stimuli, meaning an individual won’t register something if they’re asked about it after the fact.

What causes microsleeps?

Person in car yawning while holding coffee cup.
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Just as expected, if you're not getting a good night's rest, you'll be more susceptible to microsleeps.

Anyone who’s getting insufficient sleep faces greater “sleep pressure”—in other words, their body is in need of rest and starts to show it. “Typically people who experience microsleeps are at least somewhat sleep-deprived,” Spencer says.

Microsleeps aren’t likely to happen when you’re fully alert, she adds. Instead, they most often occur when you’re trying to maintain alertness, especially in a particularly mundane or boring environment.

That said, they can happen just about anywhere, which is what can make them dangerous. College students, long-haul drivers, and even medical professionals pulling overnight shifts may be at greater risk. In fact, a lot of research focuses on a couple high-risk contexts, including pilots who fly overnight and drivers. In one study, drowsy drivers had decreased vehicular control and performance.

Can you tell if you’ve had a microsleep?

Person looking tired while leaning on hand at table with another person.
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Microsleeps are nearly impossible to detect without medical devices and professionals.

Microsleeps are so brief that you likely won’t realize when one’s happened. In fact, they’re virtually impossible to detect without scientific devices hooked up to read brainwaves. If anything, you’re more likely to feel as though you’ve zoned out for a moment, Spencer says.

Interestingly enough, people around you may not see it either. That’s because microsleeps don’t necessarily share the same features that we associate with traditional sleep, such as laying down and closing your eyes.

“People can actually sleep standing up with their eyes open,” Spencer explains. In conversation with someone, it may seem like they’re daydreaming, or their eyes might glaze over, she says. Other times, the episodes are completely imperceptible.

Still, there are clues to look out for. To begin: Spencers says that if you’re drowsy, you’ll be more likely to experience them than someone who’s alert. Having a hard time focusing is another telltale sign. (Though Spencer notes that it’s important to recognize that not all inattentiveness is due to sleep deprivation and being overly tired.)

What can you do to prevent microsleeps?

Person sitting on couch wearing blanket while looking at smartphone smartphone.
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

The average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep every night.

The bad news is there’s no quick fix. “Changing your environment, moving around, getting cool air, all of those are helpful,” Spencer says. “But they’re short-lasting.” And, unfortunately, a shot of espresso won’t solve the problem.

If you’re zoning out while on the road, act fast by pulling over and taking a good nap. Spencer acknowledges that stopping in an unfamiliar area could make it difficult to relax. In that case, anything that can help you feel more at ease—even something as simple as a meditation app—is worth a shot.

Though you may not want to hear it, the best way to prevent microsleeps is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep to begin with. Researchers recommend healthy adults with normal sleep get seven to nine hours every night. Teenagers should get eight to 10 hours.

There’s seldom a surefire suggestion for sleeping better, but there are a number of things you can try:

  • Weighted blankets, like our favorite from Gravity Blanket, may help soothe anxious sleepers with their gentle pressure, leading to more restorative shut-eye.

  • Others may find success with a sound machine, which can help block out loud noises that may otherwise rouse you. Our favorite, the Sound + Sleep from Adaptive Sound, has dozens of options, including a soundtrack of crashing waves, seagulls, and seals. If natural sounds aren’t your thing, and you live in a warmer climate, even a fan can help to muffle unwanted noise.

  • Sleep is best served by dark rooms that are fairly cool and relaxing. Try a sleep mask to decrease the amount of light that penetrates your eyelids. One of our top picks, the Nidra eye mask, is contoured so that the fabric rests above your eyelids and you can easily blink while wearing it.

  • Try sticking to a quality nighttime routine to signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep. That could mean dimming the lights before you pick up your toothbrush, spending time journaling, or listening to an audiobook.

Most importantly, don’t ignore symptoms of extreme drowsiness. “Microsleeps themselves can be dangerous, but you also don't want it to go any further. Clearly you're at a point that your body needs an incredible amount of rest,” Spencer says. “Sleep is going to win.”

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