Waking Up Confused? Here's What Your Body's Trying to Tell You

You're more likely to wake up confused if you didn't get enough sleep.
Image Credit: Rafael Ben-Ari/Photodisc/GettyImages

You open your eyes and are in a total daze. Where are you? What's going on? And why don't you feel like yourself? Plenty of us have had an off morning where we wake up feeling confused or disoriented. But what's behind that sense of befuddlement — and is it ever, uh, ‌normal‌?

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"A lot of people think that when you wake up, you're just ready to go," says Shelby Harris, PsyD, a psychologist and sleep medicine expert and the director of Sleep Health at Sleepopolis. But that's not actually the case.

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It can take 20 to 30 minutes to transition from sleeping to feeling fully alert, a phenomenon experts call sleep inertia. You might start off feeling slightly disoriented for a few seconds. And even after getting your bearings, your brain might feel a little slow or fuzzy as it moves fully out of sleep mode.

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Sleep inertia can be stronger in some people than in others, Harris explains. And certain situations can worsen the inertia, potentially leaving you a little foggy-headed. Specifically, you either didn't get the sleep you need or something caused you to wake up suddenly.

Read on to find out some of the most common causes and what you can do to feel more alert, plus when to talk with your doctor about waking up confused.

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1. Your Sleep Hygiene Needs a Tune Up

Too little shut-eye can intensify feelings of sleep inertia. You're likely to feel drowsier and less alert when you have to drag yourself out of bed, explains Katherine Hall, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Somnus Therapy.

And while everyone gets hit with the occasional night of bad sleep, if you're regularly struggling to get the snooze time you need, you might need to make some adjustments to your bedtime routine. Natural remedies for insomnia include going to bed earlier, avoiding screens before bed and finding a relaxing wind-down activity.

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2. You Woke Up at an Unusual Time

Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day trains the body's internal clock to cycle through a lighter stage of sleep before you open your eyes, making it easier to transition from sleep to wakefulness. But if you have to get up much earlier than usual, you might still be in a stage of deeper sleep that's harder to wake up from, Harris says.

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"During that period, your brain is essentially shut off," she adds. (The same can happen if you sleep in later than usual and go ‌back‌ into deep sleep.)

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Being roused suddenly by a loud noise in the middle of the night can have the same effect.

3. The Snooze Button Woke You Up

You might not feel disoriented the first time your alarm goes off, especially if it beeps at the same time every day. But hitting snooze can sometimes give you just enough time to cycle back into deep sleep, says Harris.

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As a result, you end up feeling out of it (not to mention rushed and stressed) when you finally do get up.

4. You Took a Long Nap

A short nap can boost your energy, but the longer you snooze, the more likely you are to get the opposite effect.

"A 20-minute power nap is enough to snack on sleep so you feel refreshed, but beyond that, you can end up going into a deeper stage of sleep," Harris says. "If you don't time it properly, you're waking up right out of deep sleep."

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5. You Drank Alcohol the Night Before

Booze is another potent sleep-wrecker, Hall notes. It can cause your snooze time to be fitful and fragmented, leaving you groggier and less alert when you wake up the next morning.

What to Do When You Wake Up Confused

Feelings of confusion or disorientation should usually pass within a few seconds of waking up, Harris says. If you need some help getting that foggy feeling to lift, try splashing cold water on your face or getting some light exposure. Both can help boost your alertness a little faster.

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Try to get into the habit of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, too. Doing so will up the odds that you wake up naturally after a lighter stage of sleep, per an October 2018 paper in Sleep Medicine Reviews. And that can help lessen feelings of confusion.

When to Talk to a Doctor

"It's normal to very occasionally wake up disoriented, but it shouldn't be the routine," Harris says.

Let your doctor know if you're regularly starting the day feeling confused, or if it takes you a long time to get oriented or feel like you're running on all cylinders in the morning. These could be signs of an underlying sleep disorder that needs to be addressed.

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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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