Staying Awake
March 18, 2004 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Fun with narcolepsy: how can I keep from falling asleep during talks? [more inside]

I'm currently a graduate student, and as such I often attend talks, lectures, and colloquia in the mid- to late-afternoon. Problem is, unless the speaker is incredibly scintillating (which most are not), I find myself drifting off to sleep within ten minutes of the lights going down and the first transparency being displayed. This happens regardless of whether I've gotten my eight hours the night before or not. More often than not, drinking a cup of coffee right before the talk will have no effect. And unless there's something I'm subconsciously repressing, I'm not under much stress at all.

How can I break myself of this habit? It's starting to become somewhat embarassing.
posted by Johnny Assay to Health & Fitness (16 answers total)
So you don't actually have narcolepsy?

I find that regular excercise and a regular sleep schedule is the key to staying alert throughout the day. The grad school lifestyle isn't exactly conducive to getting lots of sleep, but IMO sleep is terribly underrated when it comes to overall health.
posted by jpoulos at 2:04 PM on March 18, 2004

Are you sure you aren't suffering from sleep apnea? See a doctor and inquire about it. I was falling asleep EVERYWHERE, even while TYPING, before I was diagnosed (and successfully treated w/CPAP) for obstructive sleep apnea.
posted by mrbill at 2:04 PM on March 18, 2004

in the mid- to late-afternoon
Change your schedule. Or, change your wake up potion, try a energy drink or the canned espressos. Sounds like your problem is being bored by boredom.

Maybe you can try taking detailed notes to keep you a wake or some other form of "following the instructor along as he/she speaks" keeping you more focussed awake.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:07 PM on March 18, 2004

More often than not, drinking a cup of coffee right before the talk will have no effect.

In my experience, the effect of caffeine isn't immediate. Try drinking your coffee an hour or so before the talk.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:11 PM on March 18, 2004

Narcolepsy would cause you to fall asleep when you are stressed or excited. For example, you would fall asleep moments before a car accident.

Anyways, try recording the lecture. Personally, I never found a lecture half as interesting and educational as reading a book on the matter, so for the teachers that required attendance, I would bring a newspaper to read, or sometimes just a soft book bag to sleep on.

One teacher tried to trip me up on that by asking questions during the lecture, directed at me. In the case of that course, I already knew the content so I answered them instantly... before I lifted my head. He gave up. ;-)

(And, yes, I would score 80 - 90% on those courses, so don't worry about it, assuming you ARE bothering to study outside the classes. Of course, I don't know how difficult your material is...)
posted by shepd at 2:24 PM on March 18, 2004

Do you feel OK otherwise? Maybe you should ask a doctor. Not to freak you out or anything, but a guy I know who had this problem during Air Force briefings turned out to have a tapeworm.
posted by crunchburger at 2:25 PM on March 18, 2004

Things I've tried, with mixed success:

--Sitting right up in the front row, close enough that the presenter becomes a person rather than a disembodied presence.

--Alternately, sitting near enough to the back that you can get up at times and stand next to the wall. (You might tell the lecturer ahead of time that you have back trouble and need to stand up at intervals.)

--Taking really copious notes, as thomcatspike mentions. (Although I have sometimes jerked awake to find my notes trailing into gibberish, and a long wavering inky line off the bottom of the page...)

--Deep breathing, getting a lot of oxygen into the brain. Leg- and foot-jiggling, as much as possible without annoying those next to you. Isometric exercises (tightening and then relaxing muscles, without actually moving the limbs.).

--Application of physical pain, e.g. poking or pinching self in tender spot with sharp pointy object. I used to keep a binder clip in my purse and clamp it on my fingers.

And yes, I had quite a few incredibly tedious classes in my grad program. Thank god I now have, as part of my job, an office with a door that shuts, for those furtive post-lunch naps.
posted by Kat Allison at 2:28 PM on March 18, 2004

Narcolepsy would cause you to fall asleep when you are stressed or excited. For example, you would fall asleep moments before a car accident.

Sounds like a real 'chicken before the egg' type of scenario.

As for the napping - if you've ruled out the sleep disorder possibility, and increasing your dosage or strength of coffee, level of exercise, or just cold water on the face doesn't help, you can always get an accountability partner..
posted by jazzkat11 at 3:09 PM on March 18, 2004

I second mrbill's suggestion about seeing a doctor about sleep apnea. I too would fall asleep everywhere, even when giving a presentation at a meeting.

After being diagnosed and treated with CPAP, all of the symptoms disappeared. It was amazing to find out what a good night's sleep should really feel like.
posted by garypratt at 3:10 PM on March 18, 2004

some sugar, or an orange or something would work...i fade every afternoon bet. 3 and 4.
posted by amberglow at 3:43 PM on March 18, 2004

I'm going to give you my favorite secret. A big bottle of water. You'll have to piss like hell at the end...but you'll stay awake. You can't really sleep while drinking. And you take a small sip when you begin to feel sleepy. You'll drink the water over an hour.

Also, don't let yourself be so comfortable. You're too warm. If you're cold, again, it's difficult to fall asleep. This is how you once got the idea to blast the AC in the car to stay awake. Everytime you made it hot though, it made you sleepy.

Ashamadely, I've done horrible, horrible periods with minimal sleep for weeks at a time.
posted by filmgeek at 5:49 PM on March 18, 2004

Avoid sweets and eat meat/protein, especially at lunch. This results in a steady level of blood sugar. Some folks have a drop in blood sugar in the afternoon, and that makes people sleepy.

And something I've used is munching on something chewy. sesame sticks, trail mix, even chewing gum.
posted by Goofyy at 9:50 PM on March 18, 2004

Response by poster: Great suggestions, everyone. To clarify a few things:
  • To the best of my knowledge, I don't actually have narcolepsy or sleep apnea, and from the descriptions given here, it seems unlikely. I don't have trouble staying awake if I'm not in a darkened room with a person at the front poorly explaining an abstruse topic; from your descriptions, it seems like sleep apnea or narcolepsy would manifest themselves in more varied situations.
  • The "lectures" I'm talking about are basically presentations, either PowerPoint or overhead projector — not classes. Still, taking notes in such things couldn't hurt.
  • I'm pretty good about getting enough sleep, but since I've been letting my exercise routine slide somewhat lately that might be a factor. Yet another reason why I should get back into it.
Feel free to post further ideas as they occur to you, and many thanks for those listed above. :-)
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:13 PM on March 18, 2004

I used to fall asleep in the afternoon too, often in meetings. I could just feel my eyes closing, even tho I knew it was a bad thing to do. What worked for me is taking naps earlier in the afternoon. Even if I don't think I need one, I can lie down and often doze for about 15/20 minutes, and awake refreshed. Also you might be coming off of a caffeine/sugar high from earlier in the day, maybe you regularly have a mid-morning coffee or something like that; and sitting in the dark (And perhaps warmth) just sends you over the edge.
posted by carter at 11:18 AM on March 19, 2004

Have you considered that you may have low blood sugar? Try eating a hi-protein snack (peanuts, etc) right before a lecture. I have a tendency to doze off in the afternoon, especially if I ate something sugary earlier in the day and haven't eaten for a few hours. A snack helps even more than caffeine at these times.
posted by mmoncur at 11:43 AM on March 19, 2004

I hold my breath when I start to feel drowsy during lectures. It is a weird sensation, as the oxygen levels go down, my brainstem starts screaming for air and all my senses snap suddenly back online. It really does seem to be a physiological thing.
posted by piskycritter at 12:28 PM on March 20, 2004

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