Find out the best ways to support a friend or loved one with the sleep disorder narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that impacts the brain’s control of sleep and wake cycles. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that can significantly impair a person’s daily functioning and quality of life.
Someone with narcolepsy may fall asleep at odd or even dangerous times. There are also other symptoms that can occur with this disorder such as sudden muscle weakness, hallucinations and sleep paralysis.
Narcolepsy affects males and females at relatively equal levels. For many people, the symptoms begin in childhood or adolescence, although not always.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, narcolepsy affects an estimated 135,000 to 200,000 people in America. The condition isn’t always diagnosed, meaning that the number may be higher. Misdiagnosis also tends to occur frequently in people with narcolepsy.
How to Recognize Narcolepsy
You may have a friend or loved one with narcolepsy. Frequently seen symptoms include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (the most common symptom of this neurological disorder)
- Sleep paralysis
- Cataplexy, or the sudden loss of muscle tone while awake which leads to weakness and involuntary muscle movements
- Automatic behaviors even after someone has fallen asleep (for example, a person may experience a temporary sleep episode while driving)
Varying factors may lead to someone’s development of narcolepsy. Almost all people with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a naturally-occurring chemical in the body that regulates sleep cycles and wakefulness. Other factors that play a role in narcolepsy include autoimmune disorders, family history and, less commonly, brain injuries.
6 Tips to Help Ease Narcolepsy
If you have a friend or loved one who may have narcolepsy, it can lead to a sense of frustration and distress for them. Narcolepsy can cause problems and impairment in many areas of daily life. People with narcolepsy may have problems at school or work, and in relationships. There are certain ways you can provide support for someone who has narcolepsy.
1. Learn More About the Disorder
The more you can learn about narcolepsy, its effects and potential complications, the better prepared you are to provide support to a friend or loved one.
Take the time to research the condition, including the symptoms and how having narcolepsy can affect someone’s daily life. This knowledge will help you learn about a person’s needs, and the effects the disorder can have on mental and physical health.
By researching the condition, you can also understand that narcolepsy is more than just feeling sleepy. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that’s more complex than temporary feelings of sleepiness.
2. Be Patient
Treatments are available for narcolepsy, but it is a chronic and often long-term condition. Even when someone makes gradual improvements through treatment, it’s an ongoing process. Exercise patience with your friend. There’s no immediate or overnight cure for narcolepsy.
3. Be Flexible
Someone with narcolepsy often finds that one way they cope with daytime sleepiness is to take brief naps throughout their day. Their nap may only last for 15 minutes, but it could cause them to be late or miss important responsibilities.
Be understanding of their need to take naps. Additionally, there may be times your friend with narcolepsy has to miss important events altogether, so try to be understanding and avoid making your friend feel guilty.
4. Help Your Friend Plan Ahead
If you know that your friend has narcolepsy and you have plans, help them logistically if they do feel the need to take a nap. For example, if you’re having a dinner party, let them know that your guest room is available if they need a nap.
You don’t have to make it something that everyone is aware of, but giving your friend that option can relieve much of the anxiety someone feels if they have narcolepsy.
5. Offer to Help
When someone has narcolepsy, sometimes responsibilities and tasks can be challenging for them to get done. You can offer to help when needed. For example, maybe you help them by bringing a meal if they’re having a particularly difficult day, or you could walk their dog.
When someone has narcolepsy, they can feel alone or isolated. Being an active listener can help combat this sense of isolation. You don’t necessarily have to say much, but just being there as someone who’s willing to hear their feelings and experiences in a non-judgmental way is valuable.
Being a good listener doesn’t always mean offering your shared experiences. For example, saying that you know how a person feels can make them feel more frustrated because, in reality, you probably don’t understand how it feels to live with narcolepsy. Just let them know that you’re there to listen, you’re interested in learning more and you care about how they feel.
How to Talk to Your Friend About Treatment
Untreated narcolepsy can cause a range of complications and adverse effects in a person’s life. It can cause problems in careers, it can lead to weight gain and people may try to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances.
It’s important to approach the topic of treatment with your friend or loved one. Early diagnosis and treatment can be instrumental in improving someone’s quality of life.
Don’t put too much pressure on your friend or loved one to pursue treatment. Look into treatment options and programs with them, if necessary. It may take some time, and it’s good to take a gentle approach, especially if your friend isn’t initially receptive to the idea of treatment.
If you’d like to learn more about treatment for drug or alcohol abuse with co-occurring issues like narcolepsy, contact The Recovery Village and speak to one of our intake coordinators.
Narcolepsy UK. “Supporting a Person with Narcolepsy.” Accessed January 10, 2019.
NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Narcolepsy Fact Sheet.” July 6, 2018. Accessed January 10, 2019.
Lee, Katherine. “The Symptoms and Early Signs of Narcolepsy and How to Spot Them.” Everyday Health. July 25, 2018. Accessed January 10, 2019.
Mayo Clinic. “Narcolepsy.” Published September 1, 2015. Accessed January 10, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.