Disclaimer: All proprietary content on Physicians Now is exclusively owned by Physicians Now. All RSS feed content is owned by the respective 3rd party website.

You didn’t get good sleep last night. You’ve been struggling all day to stay focused. By the evening, your partner catches you nodding off while watching your show together. Does this happen often? You may be experiencing microsleep episodes.

What Is Microsleep?

Microsleep occurs when your brain goes into an involuntary, full sleep mode for a few seconds to up to 15 seconds. Marvy Beckman LICSW, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Sunstar Virtual Behavioral Solutions explains that microsleep can be closely related to the more commonly known term “narcolepsy.”

This can look or feel like quick head nods, forgetting where you are and what you are doing during tasks. You might feel drowsy. Your eyes can feel heavy, and eventually, you cannot stay awake for that moment. Those times, when you fall asleep for a few seconds and wake up abruptly to your own sleep sounds or surroundings, can be considered episodes of microsleep.


Annie Miller, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice and the owner and founder of DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy shared that to be diagnosed with microsleep typically involves a combination of factors. These include the following:

  • Self-reported symptoms
  • Observation by others
  • Objective measures measures such as EEG recordings during periods of suspected microsleep episodes

“Clinically, microsleep may manifest as brief periods of drowsiness, nodding off, or napping, often occurring involuntarily, particularly during relaxation or repetitive tasks,” explained Miller.

Getting sufficient sleep is crucial for our well-being; in addition, dozing off can have dangerous consequences, especially for those who work in high-risk environments and safety-sensitive industries. Therefore, it’s important to understand how microsleep impacts our sleep health and safety.

Impact of Microsleep on Specific Populations

Dr. Julia Kogan, PsyD, a health psychologist with a background in neuropsychology and a specialty in chronic stress, sleep, and health behaviors explains that microsleep can have negative impacts on anyone who is experiencing it. 

In particular, shift workers and those with sleep disorders are more prone to microsleep because they are more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation. One of the more serious impacts of microsleep is related to accidents that occur when driving. It’s been shown that those with shift work sleep disorders are at the greatest risk of a traffic crash.

In addition, operating heavy machinery that requires complete focus, or using anything that can cause harm (e.g. cutting something with a sharp knife), can be dangerous. This is particularly unsafe if there is the possibility of harm to yourself or others.

If someone experiences a brief lapse of inattention in a safer environment (e.g. sitting at a computer), microsleep is less likely to have significant consequences. That said, you don’t want to be known as the person at the office who nods off in meetings.

Dr. Kogan explained that as we age, we tend to experience lighter sleep and less efficient sleep. Increased age can also be a risk factor for sleep disorders and other issues that may also cause difficulty sleeping. So, microsleep may be more common in older adults if they are not sleeping well or have additional medical issues or medications that may impact sleep (think about the times you have noticed a parent or grandparent dozing off in their recliner in front of the TV).

Workplace Safety Guidelines Regarding Microsleep

Miller shares that in high-risk industries, it’s crucial to put work safety measures in place to protect employees. Some of these can include the following:

  • Frequent breaks such as those for short naps
  • Rotation of shifts to prevent chronic sleep deprivation
  • Education on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia
  • Recognition of signs of fatigue
  • Encouragement to seek medical help for sleep disorders

“The most important factor for [work] safety is scheduling short naps that should be 15–20 minutes. Providing resources for stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness, relaxation exercises, and targeted therapy, particularly CBT for insomnia, can also help minimize the risk of microsleep,” advises Miller.

Causes and Triggers of Microsleep

Miller shares that causes and triggers for microsleep can vary depending on the individual. Sleep deprivation is the main cause of microsleep.

Other factors that may contribute to microsleep include the following:

  • Untreated sleep disorders like sleep apnea
  • Extended periods of monotony or low stimulation
  • Certain medications or substances
  • Heightened stress levels, anxiety, and trauma

Miller explains that chronic stress can lead to nervous system arousal and sleep deprivation, making you more susceptible to microsleep. The brain’s sleep-wake system (circadian rhythm) can be affected by stress hormones like cortisol.

This can lead to sleep-wake signals being off and brief lapses in consciousness (microsleep) during the daytime, especially during moments of heightened stress or fatigue.

What Does Microsleep Look and Feel Like?

Dr. Kogan says that microsleep looks and feels like small changes in behavior or processing. Sometimes people will be aware of these things; other times, it may be more subtle.

From a behavior perspective, microsleep might look like the following:

  • Briefly closing your eyes
  • Nodding off with your head
  • Quick jerk in your body 
  • Eyelids feeling heavier 
  • Eyes moving more slowly

From an information processing perspective, you may feel as though you have spaced out or lost attention for a brief time. This is because during microsleep, which typically lasts only a few seconds, the brain is not processing information in the same way. If driving, for example, someone may not remember certain parts of the drive, like taking a turn or getting off at an exit.

“Those who are experiencing sleep deprivation from sleep disorders, medical conditions, or an insufficient window for sleep would benefit from being aware of these signs, as they are the ones who are more likely to experience microsleep,” Dr. Kogan says.

It should be noted that people who are sleeping well may also experience microsleep at times, especially when doing something boring or repetitive.


How To Prevent Microsleep

Beckman explained that prevention is the safest and easiest way to manage sleep disorders and microsleep episodes. Sleep deprivation is the leading cause of microsleep episodes and can be managed with healthy sleep hygiene.

Everyone is different. Therefore, it’s helpful to experiment with the best sleep conditions for you. Ideas for improving your sleep hygiene can include changes to the following:

  • Sleep routines
  • Room temperature
  • Level of darkness
  • Use of sound machines or fans
  • Timing and size of meals
  • Use of electronics
  • Overall safety and comfort

Dr. Kogan added that those with sleep apnea or other disorders need to get it treated so they can get a better quality of sleep and feel more refreshed.

Shift Workers

Dr. Kogan explained that for those in shift work, it’s important to create a routine and bedroom environment that allows them to get the best sleep possible. This may include requesting to have the same schedule several days in a row before switching to another shift and ensuring the bedroom is dark and comfortable for proper sleep at any time of the day.

Most shift workers tend to get drowsy when driving home after working at night, so this may be a time to be particularly conscious of staying awake.

Therefore, if you are a shift worker, suffer from a sleep disorder or are experiencing daytime sleepiness, it’s important to recognize what microsleep looks like and the safety implications.

“If you are not experiencing a consistent quality of sleep, it can become a safety concern, especially in high-risk jobs. [C]ontact your primary care doctor to ask for a sleep study to rule out any other sleep disorder and discuss healthy sleep hygiene options, including over-the-counter natural or prescribed supplements,” advised Beckman.



By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP

Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia’s healthcare system.

Do you think you may suffer from Sleep Issues and live in Florida, California or New York?

If so, please consider scheduling a proper virtual online Sleep Disorder and Anxiety diagnosis with one of our physicians. Although we have an online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis tool, a proper diagnosis from a Board-Certified Medical Doctor will help you know for sure. If appropriate, a customized treatment program will be recommended at the conclusion of that initial visit.

Call Now Button