Narcolepsy Symptoms: Automatic Behaviors

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2020

Narcolepsy is so much more than a sleep disorder. Considered a chronic neurological disorder, narcolepsy usually looks different from one person to another.

One thing that is shared among all with narcolepsy is the symptom of excessive daytime sleepiness. This sleepiness in narcolepsy occurs suddenly and is an overwhelming feeling of sleepiness.1,2

There are additional symptoms of narcolepsy. Automatic behaviors are poorly understood but occur in the majority of those with narcolepsy. Automatic behaviors are carried out by a person who appears awake but is actually in a state between wakefulness and sleep.3

Narcolepsy and automatic behaviors

Have you ever driven to a destination and not recalled ever driving there at all? This “highway hypnosis” is an example of an automatic behavior. This also highlights that automatic behaviors are not exclusive to narcolepsy. What sets narcolepsy automatic behaviors apart is that, in narcolepsy, these behaviors could occur on a daily basis.4

Why do automatic behaviors occur in narcolepsy?

Unfortunately, there have not been many studies or research on why automatic behaviors occur in narcolepsy. Rare disease and the symptoms associated with them have not been studied in the way that more common conditions have.

One study conducted in 2013 found that there are usually 3 situations when a person with narcolepsy may experience automatic behaviors:4

  • Feeling sleepy and performing routine or mundane tasks. This type is like the highway hypnosis described above.
  • Feeling sleepy and performing tasks that require significant mental concentration.
  • Feeling pressured to complete a task but not sleepy. Some people identified that feeling stress to get tasks done could lead to automatic behaviors.

All people who participated in the study said they feel a loss of conscious awareness for their actions and feel “blank” during the automatic behaviors.

Treating automatic behaviors in narcolepsy

Treatment for automatic behaviors in narcolepsy focuses on treating and managing the underlying cause. The 2013 research study found 4 things that seem to help people manage automatic behaviors:4

  • Controlling other symptoms of narcolepsy, such as excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Stopping and sleeping
  • Developing daily habits to reduce the consequences of automatic behaviors
  • Becoming and staying physically active

As with any chronic condition, speak to your doctor about your symptoms of narcolepsy. Your doctor will be able to tell you if your symptoms are automatic behaviors. Be aware that your symptoms may be different than someone else with narcolepsy. Starting a conversation with your doctor will help in identifying and treating the automatic behaviors you may be experiencing with narcolepsy.

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