Perhaps you didn’t get enough sleep the previous night and are overtired, or the movie’s runtime pushes well past when you’d typically go to bed. Or, frankly, maybe the movie is just not that engaging. But if a painfully dry, three-hour documentary isn’t to blame, and if you chronically, unwittingly snooze even during high-octane action scenes from the most epic of Marvel sequels, you may be dealing with a bigger culprit.
“Falling asleep during movies is incredibly common, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a normal or healthy behavior,” says Sarah Silverman, PsyD, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist. “Benign on occasion, if it becomes a regular occurrence, it’s important to weigh the potential reasons for why it may be happening.”
What science says (and doesn't) about why you fall asleep during movies
No explicit scientific research has been published on this particular issue, and for that reason, Dr. Silverman recommends patients meet with a sleep specialist or undergo an individualized sleep study in order to determine if a sleep disorder may be behind your snoozing. “Sleep disorders are highly treatable, and sometimes dozing off on a regular basis can be a sign of an underlying medical condition,” says Dr. Sliverman.
Sleep apnea, for instance, “often goes overlooked or misdiagnosed, especially in women,” says Silverman. “While loud, persistent snoring is a classic symptom of it, another telling sign is having daytime drowsiness in a variety of situations on a consistent basis. If dozing off during a movie becomes a constant ‘thing’ for you, it’s worth considering.”
Even insomnia can be at play here, according to health psychologist and behavioral medicine specialist Julia Kogan, PsyD, who specializes in sleep disorders. Although one may assume those with difficulty falling asleep would have no problem staying awake through a movie, “if someone is not getting adequate sleep, they may find it easy to doze in certain situations not directly tied to sleep,” Dr. Kogan says.
This explains the frustrating scenario in which someone may fall asleep easily while watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a podcast, but as soon as they get into bed and try to go to sleep, they can’t. “The interesting thing about sleep is that it’s a behavior that happens passively,” says Dr. Silverman. “It happens when you aren’t actively thinking about it. When you’re watching a movie, you’re typically distracted by the movie and that’s when sleep tends to easily unfold.”
Aside from treatment for a potential sleep disorder, there are plenty of ways people can adjust their lifestyle—or even, more simply, their specific movie-watching habits—to make for a pleasantly sleep-free cinematic experience.
8 ways to help yourself stay awake during a movie
1. Reconsider traditional dinner-and-a-movie meal and snack choices
“Foods high in carbs may cause us to feel more drowsy, and people tend to watch movies after dinner or they eat heavy snacks during movies,” Dr. Kogan says. Sugary treats should also be avoided—even though they can provide an initial rush, the spike is inevitably followed by a crash in blood glucose levels. “If you’re eating before or during the movie, focusing on a well-balanced meal, with vegetables and protein, can be helpful for wakefulness.”
2. Limit alcohol
Because alcohol depresses the central nervous system, it has a sedative effect that helps you relax and more easily fall asleep. So Dr. Kogan says to avoid or minimize alcoholic beverages when you know you want to watch a movie, as doing so will help you stay more alert.
3. Put some sleep in the bank
If you know you are planning a Friday night movie date, it’s not enough to get to bed on time on Thursday. “Make sure you’re prioritizing your sleep during the entire week,” says Dr. Silverman. “Ensure that you’re giving yourself enough opportunity to sleep the number of hours your body needs to feel well-rested on a regular basis.”
4. Don’t get too comfortable
“Being comfy during a movie is nice, but certain conditions remind us of sleep,” Dr. Kogan says. Think: theaters with cozy reclining seats or a couch with pillows and blankets. “Try sitting in an upright position on the couch or in a chair,” she recommends.
5. Leave a light on
Similarly, Kogan notes that a blackened room can make it easier to sleep. No one wants to kill the mood—or make it harder to see the screen—with a bright room, but consider keeping at least one light on at a low setting.
6. Stay active
If at home, there are plenty of ways to keep your body active. “Stand up while watching the movie, fold laundry, or do some gentle stretching or yoga poses,” says Dr. Silverman. She also encourages pausing the film every so often for a quick walk around the house. This isn't so easy to do in a theater setting, but if you're prone to snoozing at the cinema, consider picking an aisle seat in the back and take breaks to stand up at the back of the room (so long as you're not blocking anyone else's view).
7. Keep ice handy
Particularly if you’re at an actual movie theater and can’t just get up and move around, sip on a cold beverage. Better yet: Ask for a cup of ice. When you feel yourself dozing off, Dr. Silverman says to “take a few ice cubes and rub them on the back of your neck or your wrists for a few seconds” to jolt your system.
8. Don’t wait too long to push play
“If you start a movie at the time your body is preparing for sleep,” says Dr. Kogan, sleep is what you’ll soon get. Dr. Silverman suggests starting the movie earlier so that it ends just before bedtime. It's also worth remembering: Matinees can be fun, too!
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