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What Is Automatic Behaviour in Narcolepsy?

Last updated: April 2023

Automatic behaviour is when someone experiences a temporary brief sleep episode during an activity (e.g., eating and writing) and automatically continues with the activity for a few seconds or minutes without conscious awareness of what they are doing.1

This usually happens when engaging in habitual and repetitive activities. This almost always impairs the performance of the activity and often cannot recall their actions.1

For me personally, automatic behaviour is one of the symptoms of narcolepsy that I struggle with most.

My first experience with automatic behaviour

Automatic behaviour was one of the first symptoms that made me really think that something was not right. I first began to notice it when I was at school, trying to copy notes down from the board and write down my own thoughts and ideas.

However, no matter hard I would try, my handwriting would turn into scrawl and become illegible mid-sentence. When I returned to full consciousness, I was completely baffled by the scribbles all over my page. I had no idea why this was happening.

Realizing this was more than general tiredness

It turns out these were my first experiences with automatic behaviour. I was in a microsleep and I was carrying on attempting to write even though I was actually asleep.

It made trying to engage in lessons and make notes extremely difficult. I was missing large chunks of notes and information, and I was falling behind. This was when I started to realise that this was more than just general tiredness and/or finding the topic a bit boring.

What triggers my automatic behaviour?

As mentioned above, writing is one of my biggest triggers for automatic behaviour. Another activity that can often trigger it is washing my hair. If I were really tired, I'd end up washing my hair with shower gel or washing my face with shampoo. I would then regain full consciousness mid-way through and have no idea if I have just washed my hair or not.

Another strange experience for me is that eating can often trigger automatic behaviour. If I'm overtired, I will continue eating without being fully conscious. I would be in these microsleeps while I was eating, and when I had finally regained full consciousness, I would find that my food was gone. I had eaten it with absolutely no recollection or memory of eating it. This was always a sad realisation when my food was gone, and I didn't even get to enjoy it. However, this does have the potential to be quite dangerous because there is a risk that I could choke.

How often does automatic behaviour occur?

I experience automatic behaviour quite often. It happens when I'm extremely tired and trying to push through the sleepiness. I am always trying to avoid taking a nap.

However, sometimes it will occur when I am desperately trying to get a task done. It's almost like my brain knows I'm trying hard to get something done and just decides to shut down. Additionally, if I am under pressure and stressed, I am also more likely to experience automatic behaviour.

Doing anything to stay alert

It results in me doing anything to stay alert and push through that sleepiness and avoid automatic behaviour. I will be splashing my face with cold water, digging my nails into my skin, scratching my skin, and pinching myself. Anything to try and wake myself up enough to complete the task.

Automatic behavior leads to frustration

It becomes so frustrating because I end up having to make several attempts to complete the same task. Just as I start engaging in the task, I will feel sleepy and the automatic behaviour will kick in. I then have to undo whatever it is that I have done while experiencing automatic behaviour.

For example, I have to make attempt after attempt to write down one sentence. I also have to cross out illegible handwriting constantly. I may end up washing my hair several times because I keep putting shower gel in my hair instead of conditioner.

It very quickly turns a 10-minute task into a 20-minute task. Attempt after attempt, and the automatic behaviour keeps kicking in no matter how hard I try to fight it. It's so frustrating – desperately trying to complete a task, but your body just keeps giving up on you.

3 things that help me manage automatic behaviours

Here are things that I have found help me that might help others too.

  1. Try not to let the sleepiness get too severe
  2. Regular naps can help to avoid the sleepiness getting so intense. Proactive rather than reactive! (Something I am not good at.)

  3. Take a nap rather than pushing through the sleepiness
  4. When you start to experience that severe sleepiness where you are struggling to stay awake, take a nap. Instead of trying to push through and continue the task, it can be better and actually time-saving to take a 20-minute nap and then come back to the task when you are more awake.

  5. Try to adjust your schedule to fit the biggest triggers in when you are most awake
  6. For example, I know reading and writing can be one of my biggest triggers, so I will try to engage in these when I know I will be most alert. I will try not to schedule tasks that I know are stimulating and physically demanding during the times I know I am most sleepy. For me, that is after lunch and around 3 PM.

Do you experience automatic behaviour? Is it something you struggle to deal with?

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