Help me stay awake!
August 23, 2009 5:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting college tomorrow, and I have a problem. If I have to sit through a long talk (class, lecture, church, doesn't matter what) I'll start falling asleep. It usually happens around ten minutes into it, regardless of how much sleep I've had the night before. I've tried going to bed earlier, sleeping longer, pinching myself and drinking water through classes. I don't drink caffeine in the morning, so I know it's not a crash. This tiredness only lasts as long as the class does; as soon as it's over, I regain full alertness and it's as if I was never tired at all.

I had this problem my last two years in Highschool and did very poorly because of it. My notes would end up a scribbled mess because I would be desperately trying to stay awake the entire class (note: this isn't just limited to things I find boring.) It damaged my relationship with the teachers because they thought I was just staying up all night, when in reality I would sleep anywhere from 8-12 (I know sleeping too long is just as bad, but at the time I assumed it would help) hours and was trying everything in the book to fix things.

I took a year off, and I thought that it had fixed itself, but I went to a few orientation sessions and low and behold, the problem is still here.

I'd really, really like to know how to get over this so I don't end up failing and having a poor relationship with my professors because I can't stay awake.

I should add that it isn't just instant falling asleep; it's a constant struggle with halfway falling asleep while trying to take notes, feeling my eyes closing, looking sharply in one direction to try to jolt myself awake, trying to stay awake but thinking random thoughts/attempting to say/experiencing things that indicate I'm falling asleep and having a dream. (I don't say anything out loud.) It never feels like full-on sleep to me, but when the class is over and I look down at my notes and the teacher comments I can tell it's at least akin to it.

Hopefully I've been descriptive enough here.

Anonymous because I don't want anyone to know I've been falling asleep during the mock-classes, and it's a sensitive issue regardless.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (67 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Sit in the front row. Drink coffee.
posted by smackfu at 5:56 PM on August 23, 2009

Does this only happen in classes? Have you ever been screened for narcolepsy? You may well have it and there are medications that can help-- typically, provigil (modafinil). Definitely see a sleep specialist, pronto.
posted by Maias at 6:00 PM on August 23, 2009

Chew gum. Preferably peppermint.
posted by honeybee413 at 6:02 PM on August 23, 2009

Have you looked into the possibility of narcolepsy? You may have a real disorder.

I don't mean to scare you with an internet diagnosis. This sounds to me a lot like my horrible drowsiness in darkened, comfortable, large lecture halls. What I would do is
a. drink my preferred caffeine source during class, as opposed to beforehand;
b. draw a lot;
c. jiggle my leg constantly, if possible without annoying others;
d. at the last resort, poke my pen's cap against the soft part of my eyelid, just so that it was painful enough to keep me awake yet not angled correctly to damage the eye.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:04 PM on August 23, 2009

I had this problem with certain lecturers in high school and in college. Though this may not work for you, I discovered that, for me, it was sometimes better to give in to the urge to sleep, and miss about 10-15 minutes of the class, than to try to fight it, and effectively miss the whole thing.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:06 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Drink a couple glasses of water half and hour before class. Don't pee until class is done.

Worked for me at university. Also, don't make the problem worse by scheduling those classes more likely to be boring first thing in the morning or between 2-4pm.
posted by cgg at 6:09 PM on August 23, 2009

Stand up in the back or on the side of the class. Tell the professor on the first day you intend to do so.
posted by procrastination at 6:13 PM on August 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

To some extent I think it's just habit. I noticed that I'd usually start the semester well in all my classes, but towards the end of it, certain classes I'd be nodding off in consistently, while the rest I was alert the whole way through.

Coffee didn't work. I tried to fight it in one class by bringing coffee, but I ended up jerking awake and knocking the cup to the floor.

What did work was actually getting up discretely and leaving on occasion, to just go to the bathroom or get a sip of water or something. Then I'd come back and be awake for the rest of the time. I only did that on days when it was particularly important to stay awake, but I imagine if you kept it up for a week or two, never allowing yourself to fall asleep, you might get used to being awake the whole time.

Another idea is bringing in something to preoccupy yourself with. Maybe a laptop and some web browsing will help.

Lastly, I was always terrified of speaking up in class, but sometimes I'd have a question I'd want to bring up. The time between thinking of the question and finally asking it (sometimes a long time) I wouldn't even be close to nodding off. So if you're like that you could use that as a trick, as well: think of something you want to ask, and use the fear of asking it to keep you alert.
posted by losvedir at 6:15 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have always had the same problem, though hardly anyone has ever believed me that it wasn;t related to sleep or boringness, as I usually loved my classes/studying/etc... I fall asleep in my favorite classes even when i'm really interested, and i know too well those scribbled notes.

You can try sitting in the front row but that never helped me.... just made me feel worse about it.
From what i gather i think it had to do with the mix of your body relaxing too much and the lack of noise and movement.

I found that exercise before class or in the mornings could prolong the onset but not usually prevent this happening, for me.

Some things that did sometimes help were standing in class on the side, or sitting on the floor or a different chair that allowed for more movement or was literally impossible for me to relax in...
bringing food sometimes helped if it was something that kept me muching, i.e. jellybeans or something where you could do 1 every minute. also, multitasking sometimes did help me.... for me to not fall asleep i had to majorly multitask to the point i didn't pay too much attention to class, but I did get the notes. For instance if you bring a laptop and work on a bunch of things at once including taking notes in word.

Test out everything until you find some things that help you.
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:22 PM on August 23, 2009

Agree with ocherdraco.

I think your problem is mostly a pyschological one, considering that you are instantly awake when the boring things (classes, church, lectures) are over. I have this problem too, and I know that it's because me falling asleep in class = me 'rebelling' against myself because I feel angry at myself for waking up so early and disrupting my sleep. Which is stupid, because I'm punishing myself more when I don't know anything about the lecture.

So I found that coming to class 5 to 10 minutes late really helps, because I feel like I have 'rewarded' myself enough for waking up so early in the morning.

I don't know whether you are anything like me, but you should really investigate why you feel so tired in classes/ boring stuff. Especially when this sounds more like a pyschological problem than a physical one.

(Also, I know I would be a field day for a psychologist, but hey, I feel what I feel).
posted by moiraine at 6:22 PM on August 23, 2009

Have the same problem.
When people start droning (lectures, powerpoint presentations, sermons, whatever) I'm out like a light.
I solved it in college by taking as few lecture courses as possible.
If you can, take small classes that require participation, classes that are student run, that have labs, etc.
For the large lectures, sit in the back, sleep and catch up with the book and the lab/discussion section later.

I mean, let's face it, for the vast majority of classes with a 500 person lecture hall, it's not like you are going to be missing a whole lot anyway.
posted by madajb at 6:22 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

i had this same problem in all of my lecture based classes. professors thought i was just a slackass, but really i just could not stay awake! even if i was getting enough sleep. i know exactly what you mean and how you feel. i have the same problem now in tedious group meetings. it's because you're just getting talked at. there is no interaction of any kind. no stimulation, etc. even if you're not at all tired, you feel yourself drifting off. it's not narcolepsy.

if possible, take discussion based classes or labs. classes where YOU have to interact or do something. if not possible, bring a quiet nibbly that you can snack on thruout the lecture. maybe that will help.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:28 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had exactly the same problem and know just what you're talking about. My class notes started out okay but would later trail off into illegible scribbles as I struggled to keep my eyes open. Then as soon as class was over, I was wide awake and totally fine. And these were classes I was really interested in!

If possible, I'd definitely recommend getting up and leaving once or twice to go to the bathroom, get a drink, or just walk down the hall and back. (Don't worry about missing a few minutes of class - face it, you'd miss them anyway if you were sleeping.) Another thing that worked for me is drawing or writing something else during class. I would write letters to people or draw cartoons, keeping the piece of paper tucked under my class notebook. This kept me awake enough to also catch the lecture and take notes on that.

One thing I noticed was that this usually occurred in the early afternoon. If you've found that there's a certain time of day that's worse for you, try not to schedule classes during that time, or schedule a non-lecture class.
posted by LolaGeek at 6:32 PM on August 23, 2009

If you're not seated not too closely beside other people you can tense and relax your muscles to get your blood moving. Ass muscles down through your legs, rotate your feet, stretch your shoulders and flex your arms. You can do a lot of this without it being obvious - you're not doing an entire gymnastic routine, just tensing and relaxing and a small amount of rotation. Meanwhile remember to breathe properly a few times, down into your lungs, not the usual shallow sips we tend to take while sitting still.
posted by zadcat at 6:32 PM on August 23, 2009

I remember having this problem in an early morning high school class decades ago. So a few minutes into the class, when the opportunity arose, I would raise my hand to answer a question posed by the teacher or to ask for a clarification. This provided a jolt of wakefulness that lasted well into the period, plus side benefit of class participation brownie points. Harder to do routinely in a college lecture-hall type class.
posted by Kevin S at 6:35 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have a sleep study just to rule out any physical problem with your sleep. I had almost identical symptoms and have recently started using a CPAP. It's amazing the difference it's made for me.
posted by katemonster at 6:36 PM on August 23, 2009 [8 favorites]

Seconding the sleep study. I had this same problem all through high school, college, work meetings, law school and now, sometimes, at work during the day. Nothing I do resolves it - coffee, gum, eating, not eating, ...I'm trying to get a sleep study through the local hospital (it's my theory that I have sleep apnea).
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 6:43 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Buy one of these to take notes with. It was made for you. I hardly ever nod off when I'm using mine, and if I do, no big deal, it records the whole lecture for me anyway!
posted by Theloupgarou at 6:46 PM on August 23, 2009

I'd really, really like to know how to get over this so I don't end up failing and having a poor relationship with my professors because I can't stay awake.

Reading some of the comments so far, I'd like to chime in as someone who has taught numerous sleepy people in college classes. I don't recommend moiraine's reward system (coming in 10 minutes late), as I find people who are persistently late are much more disruptive and bothersome than those who nod off every once and a while. At the same time, of course, if a student is falling asleep regularly in class it might be taken as rude, disrespectful, etc.

To supplement all of the great advice about how to stay awake in class, I'd like to offer a tip that will likely never fail you: talk to your instructor, and do it on the first or second day of class. Tell them that you have this difficulty, that you're working on it, and that if you fall asleep in class it isn't because you're hungover or bored or what have you. A candid conversation about potential problems does wonders compared to reason-giving after the fact.
posted by farishta at 6:48 PM on August 23, 2009 [10 favorites]

Another alternative is to find a group of people who are doing lecture notes. You will have to type up the notes for a small portion of the lectures (you can bring an audio recorder - if allowed by the school/prof- and then do the notes yourself at home on your own schedule) but then you can easily miss the rest of the lectures and read the notes created by your classmates.

Or you could pick courses where the exams are based on the textbooks, and the lectures are just to explain material. I had probably 10% of my courses where I didn't even attend the classes, and just wrote the exams (both in science and in law).
posted by birdsquared at 6:50 PM on August 23, 2009

How's your diet? What do you eat for breakfast? Was it all classes in high school or just the afternoon ones? The morning ones?
posted by Loto at 6:53 PM on August 23, 2009

1) it happens. Enjoy the fact you can do a few years you wont be able to.

2 & 3) Nth 1st row & coffee

Also try asking questions
posted by Black_Umbrella at 6:53 PM on August 23, 2009

I have had the same problem in certain courses. It's usually worse in the afternoon after I've eaten something. Coffee can sometimes help, but the only reliable way I've found of dealing with it is to get up, leave the classroom, and use the bathroom or just take a quick walk. Sipping ice cold water throughout the lecture helps as well.
posted by pravit at 6:54 PM on August 23, 2009

As an instructor, I agree with farishta. Don't come in late (I'd much rather have a drowsy student than a late one because of the disruption to me and other students) and definitely talk to your instructors right away. This would be especially helpful if you could tell me what you had planned to address the issue (i.e. tell me you're planning to do a sleep study sometime during the first few weeks of class). That information gives me the best chance to work with you during the semester.

I try to teach classes that are fairly interactive and small-group based, so I don't have too much trouble with drowsy students, but you might want to start asking people right away (especially upperclassmen in your major) who the more engaging instructors are. That won't help with your schedule the first semester, but after that you may have a bit more control of what sections you take of a class.

You may also want to take an inventory that will help you learn about your dominant learning style(s). If you're a kinesthetic learner, especially, you may benefit from talking to someone (perhaps a tutoring or counseling center) about how you can take more control and responsibility for your own learning. I've worked with kinesthetic learners who needed to be chewing on a pencil, squeezing a stress ball, repeatedly tensing up various muscles, or folding origami during lectures to keep their body busy and free up their mind to stay awake and listening. I'm this kind of learner but work in a field that is decidedly tilted toward those who learn by reading or listening. I would draw patterns of things on paper (or, for more fun, on styrofoam cups) during lectures to help me concentrate.

There are usually lots of resources on campuses, especially for freshmen, designed to help them transition into college life, so if you're not sure where to start, start with one of those programs.
posted by BlooPen at 7:10 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it happens when you're bored, consider ADD as well as the other medical issues mentioned above.

I have it and, unmedicated, a lecture class is like a nightmare scenario because no matter how hard I try, I either a) can't sit still or b) fall asleep.

No, just because it happens when you're bored doesn't mean it's "just psychological" or that you are lazy or anything like that.

Although, caffeine can help a bit with ADD (not much, but a bit).
posted by kathrineg at 7:26 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you noticed it is better or worse depending on room temperature? I have the worst time staying awake if the classroom is too warm. If this is the case for you, try to get under an AC vent, stay away from windows, and/or try an ice pack held in the small of your back. Personally, I concentrate best if it is cold enough for me to have goosebumps, but your case may be different.
posted by nowoutside at 7:35 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another vote for "oh hell yes, me too." Even if im wide awake going into class, i can fall asleep within 10 minutes.
Personally, i draw. I doodle compulsively, because it gives me something to focus on, or play games on a piece of paper with my mates. Its the only way i can actually stay awake, so although its a distraction, its better than sleeping through everything. However, i guess this only works coz i have large classes where im mostly invisible.

If you do find a better way to beat it, do tell me. Ive slept through waaay too many lectures now.
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:38 PM on August 23, 2009

I dealt with this issue throughout high school, college, and still in the working world. I can fall asleep in a class, at church, in a meeting, just about anywhere if I'm not actively engaged, regardless of how into the material I am.

nthing the standing up and moving around. Unfortunately, this isn't possible in all situations.

nthing also the suggestion for COLD

That is how I currently fight it for meetings and such. I keep a few freezer icepacks (I have some M&M shaped ones about the size of my palm) that I grab one from the freezer right before a meeting and slip it into my pocket. It's slim enough not to be noticeable and having something frozen solid next to my sensitive areas certainly makes me aware and alert.

My problem is primarily caused by lack of sleep though, as I rarely can snag more than 7 hours, YMMV
posted by emjay at 7:47 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Echoing the ADD possibility. Inappropriate sleepiness is a symptom (one that I have experienced in class, and even at work sometimes when the pool is very slow).
posted by purlgurly at 7:54 PM on August 23, 2009

I wouldn't stress about it - I think I can count on my fingers the amount of lectures I have properly taken notes in and not fallen asleep in.

What I do is turn up to lectures to get an idea of where we are at in the topic so I can keep up with the readings outside of class, and when it comes time to study I hit up friends in the classes for their notes.

So as long as you go to most of your lectures so that you are keeping up with your coursework, and make a couple of friends in each class to get notes off of, you'll be fine.

I think that maybe some people just aren't suited to the format of a lecture - even when I do manage to pay attention usually I don't have a clue what it is that I am hearing, but when I sit down with my textbook afterwards the content comes to me really easily.
posted by sartre08 at 8:07 PM on August 23, 2009

Oh man, this was me in HS and college, didn't matter what class or how un-tired I acually was, so don't worry, it's not narcolepsy. If you *need* to stay awake (few people in the class), then go to the bathroom and stretch.

If it's a bigger class then I've found that when I give in to the sleep and sleep with my head up for a few mins, then I do that awkward jump-awake thing, but after that I stay awake through the whole lecture, even if there's 2 hours left!

Or have something to do. Can you hide a phone behind the guy in front of you and text? That kept me awake. Or to look like you're taking notes, play the game where you take a big word, such as like, PHOTOGRAPHY (or any long word that the professor says) and make little words out of it - goat, gap, gay, then move on to another letter - pot, pogo, pay, etc. I do this at work during big meetings now, it's the only way I stay awake.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 8:07 PM on August 23, 2009

I had this exact problem. Here's what worked for me:

trail mix, nibbled throughout class (candy and chocolate would make it worse, nuts and dried fruit helped);

Sitting close to the door, discreetly ducking out and doing 20 or so jumping jacks or arm circles. Sometimes had to do this three or four times in a math class;

digging my nails into my palm, snapping rubber band on wrist (weird, but temporarily effective);

knitting if the prof would let me;

doodling or making lists, dividing my attention so that one part of my brain would be listening to the prof and the other part was problem-solving.

asking a question -- the tiny little shot of adrenaline this would give me would perk me up for a while.
posted by jennyjenny at 8:14 PM on August 23, 2009

I learned to twirl my pen. The repetitive action satisfies my fidgetiness, and though I'm good at it (now), I still have to remain alert enough to keep it from flying off the desk. It requires a little attention, but not so much that I become absorbed and miss the lecture. It's also immensely helpful for staying awake while studying.
posted by telegraph at 8:16 PM on August 23, 2009

I recommend this book: The Promise of Sleep. According to the author, a Stanford sleep researcher, the fact that you're able to nod off like this simply means that you're already dangerously sleep deprived. "Drowsiness is red alert", he says (because you can just as easily fall asleep while driving, etc.)

According to this theory (which matches my experience), you can't fall asleep during the day unless you've already accumulated some sleep debt. If you're truly well-rested, you'll just find it impossible to nod off no matter how boring, quiet, dark, etc. the environment is.

So I would suggest that either you don't get as much sleep as you think you do (how carefully do you really measure this? maybe try keeping a log), or that your sleep is not restful for some other reason (e.g. sleep apnea).

It's not surprising that the experience is so common, because sleep deprivation in our society is so common that it's almost expected, especially among students and professionals.

Also, I'd argue that no method of distracting yourself is ever going to be as good as actually getting enough sleep, which is very important for your overall health, etc. Just because almost no one else does it doesn't mean you can't.
posted by dixie flatline at 8:20 PM on August 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think talking to your profs is a good idea. You might be able to get a doctor's note explaining your problem as well so that while you are working to correct the problem, an occasional nap doesn't anger the prof. Also, if you do your best in other ways, perhaps you won't be given a hard time.

Also I think you should ensure you don't have narcolepsy, sleep apnea or other disorders that disturb sleep (I have hyperthyroid which causes insomnia- I'm a wreck some days). If you test healthy and you are also not suffering from insomnia, I suggest you treat your daytime sleepiness as a priority try to arrange your time to allow enough sleep. If that means going to bed earlier, taking a nap mid-day, changing your work shift, adjusting your diet, etc. then you might want to try those things.

One thing I used to do in classes that I fell asleep in was participate in class (if it was that type of class). I asked questions and spoke up in class to keep my mind involved. I also recorded lectures just in case.
posted by Piscean at 8:32 PM on August 23, 2009

I am with those who recommend starting by talking to a doctor, to rule out the (many) potential physical causes of daytime drowsiness. The fact that it's common doesn't mean it has the same cause in everyone, or that it's healthy. Sleep apnea could be one cause, and that can have more and more impact as life goes on. Do check yourself out physiologically first.
posted by Miko at 8:35 PM on August 23, 2009

Yes, as others said, talk to your professors and let them know.

I am now thinking back on the times I have been rather assholish (dropping a book on the floor, etc.) to students who fell asleep and feeling a little bad about it. Though the students who I have done that to have all been slackers in ways outside sleeping in class once in awhile. /rationale
posted by nosila at 8:41 PM on August 23, 2009

Will reading something keep you up? If so, then simply read over the material you're currently studying in class; but sit up front so the prof can see you're reading lecture related material and not for pleasure. Listen in from time to time and/or make a point early in class so you're not totally zoned out.

This is what I did in classes*- my problem wasn't sleepiness, but my inability to retain information from lecture. I am not an auditory learner; I don't remember what was said very well and I find it hard to pay attention to a lecturer for a long time. If I reading, however, I'll remember everything and be so focused that I'll forget to eat and sleep.

*Well, eventually I just stopped going to class except for tests. It's helpful to befriend your instructors if you want to pull this off with halfway-decent grades.
posted by spaltavian at 8:53 PM on August 23, 2009

I never fell asleep in high school classes, but once I got to college, there were lectures when I was out like a light. I am not inclined to think that you have a diagnosable issue. Something about the combination of the temperature, lighting and the noises of the lecturer talking mixed with the shuffling of papers makes for sure sleepiness. Sometimes when I'm trying desperately to get some sleep on an airplane I wish I had a lecture-room simulator.

And I am very obsessive about trying to make sure I get a good amount of sleep. However, diet may contribute to the issue some. My diet changed pretty significantly going from high school to college, and I know that it's easy to get into a habit of poor nutrition when you feel like you're busy enough to not have the time or means to make yourself a good meal three times a day. Are you getting enough protein? What about plants? That might help you some. A regular sleep schedule may also be help--nine hours every night starting at 11 or something, with occasional Friday/Saturday deviances.

Otherwise, the things that helped me were things like sitting next to more attentive friends (help provide notes even when you do accidentally fall asleep!), having a laptop (although that mostly just led to a hugely distracted lecture experience), sitting in the front row (had a class where I was actually sitting/lying on the floor in front of the first row--definitely depends on your professor), knitting (also tends to unsettle some professors, but kept my hands busy without really significantly occupying my brain), taking obsessive pretty notes, having interesting material mixed with an awesome professor (can be challenging to accomplish). Some professors won't even care if you never show up except for on the test day (although most will prefer you do, and some will even require attendance or provide incentives for attendance). Snacks help, but then you're eating your way through your classes, which may not be the best for you health-wise.

Some of these lectures will probably be huge things where the professor won't notice if you're asleep anyway. Some classes you'll have the professor who will see you asleep and sneak up behind you and startle you awake. Some will have the rest of the class leave the room as quietly as possible and see if you don't notice. Some professors probably will be put off by you falling asleep and start to dislike you. Make friends with people in your classes. Friends will be your lifelines, they're the best way to get your homework done on time and well. Unlike in high school, you'll be able to spend as much time with your friends as you and they can stand (unless you're still living at home, I suppose), and getting study groups together for the homework always led to my best homework and learning experiences. Obviously this applies more for more technical classes like math and sciences.
posted by that girl at 8:54 PM on August 23, 2009

spaltavian's comment about not being an auditory learner may also have something to do with it. The more visually involving a class was, the better I was at keeping awake. Powerpoint was a death knell, physical experiments at the front of the class were awesome! I can't even follow along with audiobooks, I am definitely not good at hearing words.
posted by that girl at 8:57 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

This happened to me in exactly one class. I have no idea why. The professor was knowledgeable and the material was very interesting (and a part of my major). But without fail, I would start falling asleep in her class. I sat kind of in the front and brought Coke.

Definitely see a doctor first to rule anything wrong out.

Ocherdraco's suggestion was pretty much what I did.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:12 PM on August 23, 2009

Definitely talk to your professors and let them know. When I was in college I wasn't aware that I had this problem and I dropped out (four times!) because I absolutely could not stay asleep in class. And now that I'm in the working world I have to fight falling asleep in meetings.

I have ADHD, sleep apnea and I'm definitely not an auditory learner, so the deck was stacked against me from the start. I still get sleepy in meetings/lecture situations despite having the sleep apnea controlled.

Do you have a laptop? Try using that for notes. If your campus has wifi, keep an AIM/Gchat conversation going on the side so you can shift your attention from time to time.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:33 PM on August 23, 2009

Take massive notes. It does wonders .
posted by OrangeDrink at 10:00 PM on August 23, 2009

Seconding dixie flatline's recommendation of The Promise of Sleep. If you've got sleep debt, 8-12 hours one night won't fix it. If you're regularly sleeping 8+ hours/night and nodding off in class, it's not sleep debt.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:08 PM on August 23, 2009

Diet can really matter, and just because you don't drink coffee doesn't mean your problem isn't a crash. Your blood sugar level can fluctuate significantly depending on what you eat and when.

Above it was mentioned that nuts seemed to work better than candy bars; this is true for me in a big way. Good breakfast with some fat+protein (e.g. eggs/sausage rather than just sugar cereal) helps me to avoid sleepiness when sitting mid morning, same thing for lunch helps with the afternoon food coma.

I actually find very dark chocolate helps too-- enough stimulants to keep me awake and something tasty too munch on, not so much sugar that i just crash afterwards. So does staying hydrated. When this has been particularly bad for me (like you I often get drowsy in lectures, but college does sometimes involve low sleep levels...and bad diet... both of which only makes the drowsy worse), I did homework during class; that way what I was working on was related to the lecture so I could still pay attention, but I was more involved and thus less likely to nod off. (These days, when I go to seminar, I make sure to bring notes for a project I'm working on, so if I get nod-offy I can keep myself up).

Oh yeah, and do get up and go to the bathroom/get a drink/etc when you notice it, if you can. Whenever I TAed I vastly preferred that method, although I've got a lot of sympathy for sleepy students because I often was one myself. Snoring students, however are a different matter. Don't do that.
posted by nat at 11:27 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, jeez, does this post bring back memories! This exact same thing happened to me my last year of college and I could not for the life of me figure out what it was: I'd been getting plenty of rest, ate well, exercised regularly, no health problems, etc. It was driving me crazy trying to figure it out until one day, by pure chance, I sat in a different seat because my usual perch far away from the door was taken. (I'd hated getting cold when people would go in and out.) My new seat was directly to the left of the door and for the first time in weeks I hadn't gotten drowsy during class! I tried moving my seat in the next class too and had the same positive result.

It turned out that the huge lecture halls were so overcrowded and stuffy, the lack of oxygen was making me sleepy. The colder air from the doors opening was all I'd needed -- well, that and an occasional fresh air break during especially long lectures. Most of my professors were understanding; as long as I was discreet when exiting and re-entering the room, they cut me some much needed slack. Didn't nod off again the rest of the year.

Try it! Maybe it'll work for you too. Good luck.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 11:32 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had this problem all throughout undergrad, and 9 times out of 10 I was nodding off because I was disengaged and bored. as. hell. I think it's important to figure out a way to become an active participant in the class, even if it's a lecture situation in which you are generally expected to sit quietly and take notes. Lecture-based classes can feel like something you are simply subjected to for an hour or so, especially in the freshman level/introductory courses. You made need to find creative ways to stay engaged in lecture itself.

Some suggestions:
-have the text book open to the relevant chapter for that day's lecture and mark-up the text instead of just taking notes from instructor comments. This gives you an additional visual stimulant.
-don't "take notes" (in the traditional sense) during class, but rather formulate and write down questions from what you hear - ex. instructor says something like "the 3 main rock types are igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary" so you would write down "what are the differences between the 3 main types of rocks?"
-if you have an instructor who tends to "lecture from the reading" you should be able to tell pretty early in the semester. In this case, you could take notes from the reading before class and put a check in the margin next to each thing your instructor mentions in class
-Ask questions, possibly ones that you have prepared ahead of time.

(On preview, I fully acknowledge that these suggestions are especially nerdy)
posted by Eumachia L F at 12:06 AM on August 24, 2009

I had the same problem, in school, and in conversations. I think it's a mild spot of narcolepsy, since I snore and have very rare sleep paralysis.

What I discovered which really helped was methamphetamine... just kidding.

No really, just BREATHE. The extra oxygen helps keep you alert and the act of breathing gives you something to focus on, since obviously, the educator isn't very enthralling.
posted by emptyinside at 12:36 AM on August 24, 2009

I had the same problem - partly due to health problems thanks to never getting good sleep, and thus I'd always be dead tired. I managed to stay awake by taking seriously detailed notes, along with margin notes of my own examples of things, page numbers, etc. As much info as I could get onto paper - and as long as I kept writing I was fine.
Also I tried to stay highly caffeinated. (I took a soda with me everywhere.)

Problem would be when the prof or the subject was somewhat tedious, and then I'd get lull'd into a zombie like state.

Definitely take this point in your life to see a doc about your symptoms, just to make sure nothing serious is going on. If they can treat any of your sleeping problems (if they're related to anything) it's a good time to find out now.
posted by batgrlHG at 1:26 AM on August 24, 2009

Whatever you do, I think talking to the teachers about this is the absolutely worst idea imaginable. The first impression they will get of you is very negative: "guy walks up to me and says: hey, no offense, but I'm going to sleep through your classes". It's the kind of thing they tell their spouses about in the evening, and it's an image that will stick to you.

I second the suggestion of getting a laptop and doing some stuff on it that you do find interesting (write love letters, make drafts of papers, chat on IM or surf MeFi). Just make it look like you're busy and earnest.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:55 AM on August 24, 2009

One of the schools I went to video recorded the lectures for the larger classes. Is this a possibility and would it solve any of your problems?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:16 AM on August 24, 2009

Once you have ruled out a medical reason for your drowsiness, try the following:

Move your tongue. There is scientific evidence behind this one - it's impossible to fall asleep if your tongue is moving. If you like gum, chew gum. Personally I just bite my tongue and do some tongue exercises keeping my mouth closed to avoid attracting "WTF glares".

Wear something uncomfortable. Something that pinches or pulls at your hair, or sit in an awkward position. This doesn't have to be for hours on end, I'm not suggesting extended torture here, only when you feel the drowsiness take ahold of you.

In the long run, get into a proper rhythm. This takes a bit more effort. Establish how many hours you need to sleep each night, and whether or not a scheduled power nap can help out without compromising your nightly Zzz's. To do this properly you need to follow the same pattern 7 days a week, which may cramp your style depending on how much late night partying you tend to do on the weekend...

Power naps are invaluable. I am a huge fan. Make sure they don't exceed 10-15 minutes though.
posted by heytch at 3:12 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

spaltavian's comment about not being an auditory learner may also have something to do with it. The more visually involving a class was, the better I was at keeping awake. Powerpoint was a death knell, physical experiments at the front of the class were awesome! I can't even follow along with audiobooks, I am definitely not good at hearing words.
posted by that girl at 4:57 AM

Thirding that this might your problem among all the other things suggested. I can't process information aurally. That means that in classes, especially with no visuals going on, I would get bored and start falling asleep. I need visuals! I can't listen to audiotapes and I get annoyed and fidgety when people read to me.

Ultimately, my only solution in college was to try to make up what I was missing by studying the textbook and discussing problem sets with the other students. What the professor said went in one ear and out the other. What helped a bit sometimes was to transform what the speaker was saying into a visual model. Conjuring up a bunch of 2-d or 3-d images and building them up abstractly.

Again, this may not be your specific problem here. But I thought I'd throw it out there. Because if it is, then its not ADD or depression. Its the way you/I just think and process information.
posted by vacapinta at 3:36 AM on August 24, 2009

Since this seems to be consistent and affects your school performance across the board, preventing you from normal achievement, you should talk to your school's disability resource center, and do this before you talk to your professor.

They will help you out with whatever you need.
posted by enfa at 3:49 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ha. I have basically the same problem, especially the part about it being situational - I can have anywhere from six to ten hours of sleep the night before and be completely alert, but as soon as I get into a work meeting I find it physically impossible to keep my eyes open. Had the same problem at school and uni. I've been tested for sleep apnoea and narcolepsy, but apparently my sleep is normal.

I know when one of the attacks is coming as soon as I find my mind wandering and starting to get the dreamlike thoughts that you describe (sometimes to the point of actual hallucinations). I find that it happens most often when I am a bit bored or disengaged from what's happening - if I'm running a meeting I find it much easier to stay awake than when someone else is and I'm just along for the ride. It has not got better with age; actually, it's been getting worse.

Caffeine, naps, eating, not eating, being too cold, being too hot, hyperventilating, stabbing myself in the leg with a pen - none of it works. The only things I've found that help at all are (a) to be completely up to speed with the material that the (meeting/lecture) is covering so that I feel engaged with what's going on (at uni I did this by ignoring the overhead projector slides and taking really copious, structured notes) and (b) to tense my arse muscles so that I am hovering slightly above the surface of my chair. Sadly my arse muscles can only do this for so long.

A friend of a friend apparently had a similar problem and also tested negative for any kind of sleep disorder. Then she got diagnosed with ADHD and started on medication, which cured her completely. Her case sounded a lot like mine, and what you've described sounds a lot like both of us. In fact I've got an appointment later this week to see a doctor about it. Good luck!
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:51 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding sugar/carbohydrate crashing. This is much worse for some people than for others. I cannot eat cereal, bread, pancakes, or even fruit for breakfast when I need to stay alert - I have to have protein, with no carbs on the side. For me, this usually means some baked tofu; I used to eat a handful of nuts with great success (they're surprisingly filling).

The thing about protein is it takes much longer to break down into "energy" than sugars or carbs, so you get a more consistent energy supply. Most people don't need this so much, but if you have a tendency to hypoglycemia, then a large dose of sugar and carbs first thing in the day will be followed, in a delayed reaction, by an energy crash that will nearly force you to sleep. I'm not sure why this would be more pronounced in a lecture hall situation, but since you're sitting still I can imagine it would indeed be the case. It certainly happens to me a *lot*, but not so much when I have some more physical activity to do.

Also, being 110% on top of the classroom material can help a lot. I've found it helps when I have read deeply enough that I have questions about the material or about the professor's take on the material. Then, lecture has a bit of an element of suspense: will he cover this point? Is he getting to his own experience here? Did he just imply that he disagrees with the text? Bonus: you will rock the class. I'm afraid that it may be all or nothing for you, dear student.

Me, I spent most of my college years sleeping through lectures, then learning everything (calculus, physics, chemistry, organic chemistry) from the textbooks. I don't recommend it.
posted by amtho at 6:46 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since this seems to be consistent and affects your school performance across the board, preventing you from normal achievement, you should talk to your school's disability resource center, and do this before you talk to your professor.

They will help you out with whatever you need.

Yes. This is great advice.
posted by kathrineg at 8:47 AM on August 24, 2009

When I am having trouble staying awake in a meeting, I take notes Left-handed (I am right-handed). The extra concentration that it takes to form legible letters/words apparently keeps some different/extra part of my brain occupied so I don't drift off. I also have to concentrate to figure out which words to write down, since I can't write fast enough left-handed to write down everything I might want to, so I listen and right down key words that will be meaningful later.
posted by CathyG at 8:53 AM on August 24, 2009

Nthing all the advice about keeping your hands busy. I went to a tiny college and never had a lecture style class, but even in the small group/participatory setting, sometimes I would nod off. I found that crocheting in some classes helped, as long as I checked with the Professor first, and then I took it as a matter of personal pride to also actively participate in class (to prove that the needlework wasn't distracting me, but in fact helping me focus).
I also took a yoga class my final semester, which just happened to be scheduled before my thesis course. I found that I was so focused and alert after the exercise. If I could have done it all over again, I would have set up an exercise/stretching routine before each of my classes. So you might try doing a little stretching or calisthenics right before class. I also really like the idea of getting up from time to time. If you sit near the back or a wall, you could easily stand up and stretch and remain standing for a bit to keep yourself alert. Again, explain to your professor early on what your problem is, and that these are some things you might try to combat it, and is that ok with them? Good luck in college.
Someone upthread mentioned sitting on the floor, and I recall that there was usually one person that did that in nearly every class. Hah! How awesome to consider that again! Maybe they were actually trying to stay focused! I just attributed it to the high ratio of hippies :)
posted by purpletangerine at 9:19 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Staying completely still for long periods of time can sap the attention out of anyone! I've found myself in the same situation as you many times, so I've developed a method to staying awake and alert in class: have a protein shake for breakfast, sit up straight and near the front of the classroom, (quietly) breathe deeply throughout the whole class, and the hardest part: participate in class discussions. The last one gets my adrenaline pumping due to nervousness so that may or may not help you.
posted by wiretap at 12:58 PM on August 24, 2009

Nthing ADD. When I was a kid I would go to the bathroom or the nurse constantly to wake myself up. When I was in highschool I was always nodding off, and we thought it was my blood sugar. Turned out to be ADD. I started on adderall and it worked wonders, even if it made me want to chainsmoke. Legally acquiring adderall can be kinda difficult for a college student but I really recommend it.
posted by Betty_effn_White at 3:06 PM on August 24, 2009

Like katemonster, CPAP fixed me right up. I'm also ADD inattentive, depressed and probably somewhat autistic. Now that the sleep apnea is treated I'm just as bored in those situations, but at least I have no trouble staying awake.
posted by sgass at 7:11 PM on August 24, 2009

Like katemonster and sgass, this was the first symptom of severe obstructive sleep apnea for me. Daytime sleepiness in this kind of situation is often a sign of sleep apnea. If none of the other suggestions here clicks, please go to a doctor even if it sounds silly. Untreated sleep apnea causes strokes, brain damage, memory problems, and even car accidents (when you don't realize how sleepy you are).

I did NOT have the stereotypical sleep apnea symptoms of snoring and jerking awake or obviously stopping breathing at night, by the way, so don't think that gets you off the hook!
posted by wintersweet at 9:35 PM on August 24, 2009

n-thing sleep apnea. Get a sleep study done. I had the same exact problems in school and in business meetings that you're describing. No matter what time, or how hard I tried, or if I ate or didn't eat or drank caffeine or whatever... 10 or 15 minutes in and I was starting to drool and nod, and my notes were often of the form, "Blah blah blah ". But I was fine outside of meetings/classes for the most part. I think that the soporific effect of listening to someone drone on, combined with lack of REM sleep from the apnea, was just enough to tip me over the edge. I've been sleeping with a CPAP machine for years now, and doing much, MUCH better. It's something to try, anyway. Good luck.
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 7:29 PM on August 26, 2009

Sigh - MF ate my "special effects". My notes were often of the form, "Blah, blah, blah, (squiggle), blah, bl... (shaky line going off the edge of the page)" (repeat).
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 7:31 PM on August 26, 2009

Had to come back and add this - one reason to look into getting the apnea and ADD checked now while you're in school is that sometimes schools will give you the tests for free. (Part of what you pay for school goes to that student health system, use it while you have it!) Note that you'll need to ask some questions - sometimes the free tests mean you'll be videotaped (for future use with med students) or seen by profs with other students in tow in a teaching situation, which can be weird (I always wonder what they could end up doing with those videos). But the important reason to do this now - later in life, outside of the school setting, those tests can cost wads of money to have done, and depending on what insurance you have may not be covered. You'll likely be sent to multiple docs if it turns out you have a problem - so getting some tests done free at student health and then following up with your regular doc (if you have insurance for it) is often a great thing to get out of your college years. And if you can catch your problem now you'll have all that many more years to work out how to cope with it.

(I admit I had some bad experiences with student health systems in the 4 univ I went to - I did a lot of grad school - such as them missing diagnosing chronic health problems - but have learned that outside of the college you'll often end up being sent to multiple docs for treatment anyway when they're trying to figure out what's wrong with you. And then you'll often have to argue with insurance over covering that. Definitely not fun.)
posted by batgrlHG at 2:25 PM on August 28, 2009

Thank you to everyone that posted. I see that I'm posting almost a year after the last comment, but I couldn't resist.
I was previously diagnosed with ADHD as a child but ended my medication in the beginning of high-school without problem. But as soon as I started Uni, the problem of falling asleep in class bit me hard in the ass. I've ignored the problem for 4 years with horrible results. I'm going to the doctor next week to ask question to see whether I should go back on medication or whether it is something else.
So again, thanks.
posted by jackquack at 9:30 AM on July 23, 2010

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