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Stress, Narcolepsy, and Emotions Triggering Symptoms

Posted on February 07, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN

Some people with sleep disorders like narcolepsy experience an uptick in their symptoms after feeling strong emotions or going through a stressful time. Although stress isn’t a trigger for everyone, several members of MyNarcolepsyTeam have noticed a connection.

One member shared, “My brother recently died, and I’m exhausted. I don’t know if my medication gave up on me or if the stress can actually make this worse.” Another said, “Weather changes, the days are getting dark earlier, and high stress levels all have a negative impact on my symptoms.”

Aside from stress or sadness, other members experience more narcolepsy symptoms with laughter or excitement. Here’s some background on why this can happen and what you can do to prevent stress or heightened emotions from exacerbating your symptoms of narcolepsy.

How Stress Affects Sleep

Despite moments of excessive daytime sleepiness, many people with narcolepsy have trouble sleeping well at night. Insomnia and fragmented sleep are common problems for people with narcolepsy. After sleep deprivation, managing emotions becomes increasingly difficult. It’s easy to see how people with sleep disorders can get caught in a cycle where a lack of sleep promotes stress, which further perpetuates difficulty sleeping.

Without enough sleep, our patience and ability to solve problems are impaired, raising frustration and potentially conflict with others. One member summed up this issue by stating, “Stress makes me sleep worse, which makes my symptoms worse.”

Strategies for Better Sleep

Although people with narcolepsy face unique challenges, they can still benefit from the same lifestyle changes recommended to everyone for a good night’s sleep. After a stressful day, guided meditation apps like Headspace and Calm can improve your frame of mind before bed. You could also practice meditative movement as part of your bedtime routine through yoga, qigong, or tai chi. Journaling is a good practice for putting your worries down on paper. Remember to reflect on the positives of your day, including anything you’re grateful for.

In addition, exercising during the day, avoiding blue light in bed (from a cell phone, computer, or TV), and following a consistent sleep and wake schedule are all proven strategies to help you sleep at night. If you rely on caffeine or other stimulants to stay alert throughout the day, ask your doctor about adjusting your dosage timing to allow for better nighttime sleep.

Emotions and Cataplexy

Sudden muscle weakness or the temporary loss of muscle tone or muscle control is called cataplexy. Not everyone with narcolepsy experiences cataplexy, but those who do often cite emotion as a trigger.

One member said, “I’m in a depressed mood, and these negative emotions keep triggering my cataplexy.” Another wrote, “I have had several sleep attacks with cataplexy today already. Mostly due to negative emotions, as I’m in a bad mood.”

However, feeling bad isn’t the only type of emotion that affects cataplexy. Many have noted cataplexy during times of joy and surprise. “I am having an issue where it seems like strong emotions … even happiness causes the cataplexy.”

Although you can’t always control when emotions strike, you can try to take a step back and recognize how your emotions affect your narcolepsy symptoms. Keeping a record that you can share with your health care provider will help you sort out potential treatment options and strategies to manage your condition better.

Laughter is often noted as a cataplexy trigger. Research shows that laughter activates parts of the brain in different sequences for people with narcolepsy than in those without the condition. If you’re worried about how cataplexy will affect your life at work or in other social situations, let others know about your concerns. One member explained, “I always tell my employer after hire. Then, there is no chance for discrimination. I only tell them because of my cataplexy episodes with high emotions, usually laughter. I have an executive position and have worked for over 30 years with this.”

Learning from others who have found ways to navigate their narcolepsy triggers can inspire confidence.

Stress Management Tips

Stress can be tough on anyone, but it can be especially frustrating to feel like others don’t understand how stress affects your narcolepsy symptoms. “I have been going through some very stressful life situations, and stress directly impacts my cataplexy. No one gets it when I say I can’t deal with the stress well,” said a member of MyNarcolepsyTeam.

Fortunately, there are proactive steps you can take to keep stress from getting the best of you. To prepare for a stressful situation, practice relaxation techniques targeted at keeping you calm. You can also use these techniques after a high-stress day or as a daily practice to boost your mental health and quality of life.

Body Scan Meditation

Body scan meditation shifts your focus to the present moment by bringing attention to different parts of your body. You can sit or lie down, and close your eyes to begin. The first few times you try body scan meditation, it’s helpful to listen to prerecorded audio that will guide you through the process. Once you become familiar with the sequence and timing, you can perform body scan meditation on your own by mentally going through the steps.

Deep Breathing

Slow, deep breathing is a proven way to quiet hyperarousal in the brain. To practice deep breathing, sit upright in a chair and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in your nose and exhale through your mouth, using your hand to feel your stomach move while your chest remains still. You can also do deep breathing exercises while lying flat on your back.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is similar to body scan meditation, except you’ll take the extra step of squeezing and relaxing each muscle group while drawing attention to different parts of your body. Start at your feet and gradually progress up to your face, contracting each muscle for 10 seconds before you release. Take your time, breathing in and out as you make your way through your whole body. By the end, your body and mind should feel less tense.

Visualization

Visualizing yourself in a peaceful setting can transport your brain to a better state of mind. You can try listening to a guided meditation or simply use your imagination. Some popular examples include a sunny beach, grassy meadow, or quiet forest. Picture not only the sights but also the sounds and smells of your chosen location. You might be surprised to find that you feel more relaxed even after just a minute or two on a mental vacation.

Due to the relaxing nature of all of these techniques, you may doze off during or right after doing them. Practicing relaxation techniques in a safe place when you don’t have to run off somewhere (such as in your bed before you go to sleep) will prevent them from interfering with your schedule.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyNarcolepsyTeam is the social network for people with narcolepsy. On MyNarcolepsyTeam, more than 8,100 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with narcolepsy.

Are you living with narcolepsy? Have you noticed that stress or other emotions affect your symptoms? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O. is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in Critical Care Medicine, Pulmonary Disease, and Sleep Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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