What happens when your alarm wakes you during REM sleep

You’re in the middle of a super intense dream — so intense you are literally in the middle of where all the action is. All of a sudden your alarm goes off, and you wake up with a powerful jerk that sends you out of bed like a rocket. 

Dreams happen when you are in REM sleep, which begins around 90 minutes after you fall asleep, and a person could go through several REM periods during a normal sleep cycle. The first REM period might last 10 minutes and it lengthens each time (via WebMD). REM sleep stimulates the parts of the brain needed to learn new things — which could explain why the older humans get, the fewer REM cycles we experience. REM sleep also affects how people learn certain mental skills, so that those that were taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep were still able to remember what they learned, while others who were deprived of REM sleep did not (via PsychCentral).

We know REM is important — so what happens when we’re woken up in mid-REM?

Waking up in mid-REM: Sleep drunkenness

Yes, waking up drunk from sleep is a thing. People who suffer from sleep drunkenness (also known as confusional arousal) wake up disoriented and drowsy, and those symptoms can last anywhere from five to up to 15 minutes. Sleep drunkenness happens more often than you might think: A study conducted by Stanford University shows that sleep drunkenness happens to 1 in 7 adults. Researchers have expressed the concern that sleep drunkenness could impair the judgments of people who have high-risk jobs where being alert means everything, including engineers and pilots. Sleep expert Maurice Ohayon even noted that the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster was worsened by decisions made by an engineer who had awoken suddenly from a nap (via U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

Waking up in mid-REM: Irritability and low self esteem

Starting the day being yanked out of bed in mid-REM doesn’t just cause you to stagger around like you’ve had a few too many — it can hurt your mood, too. In research presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, both men and women say their moods and their self-esteem were hurt by waking up and beginning the day in mid-REM. In the study, this was even seen as a trigger for mood disorders such as daytime depression, which in turn led to lower levels of self-esteem, with women being affected more negatively by the disruption than men were. Sanford Auerbach of the Boston University School of Medicine said the findings were significant because all the participants in the study were both mentally and physically healthy.

Waking up in mid-REM: Extra creativity

Here’s where it gets weird. If you wake up in mid-REM to start your day, you could stagger around sleep drunk and suffer from mood swings and depression. But a separate body of research shows that the mental processes you need to harness when you’re solving problems or being just plain creative are actually heightened when your REM sleep is interrupted. Researchers tested this theory on 16 subjects using anagram word puzzles and found that subjects who performed after REM awakenings had an advantage of 32 percent. The researchers suggest that the brain following REM sleep could have a better ability to manage creative tasks or work that demands a level of more flexible mental processing.

So cuss out your alarm clock when it rudely interrupts your dreams of running through a lavender field in Provence, enjoying a smooth latte at a Parisienne cafe, skiing in Verbier, or hanging out with Kate and Wills in Mustique, but keep a challenging puzzle handy. You could be sleep drunk and cranky, but you might just be able to get that brain game off your list of mental challenges to conquer. 

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