Slow mornings? Here’s how changing your alarm tone can combat sleep inertia

Ever wake up groggy in the morning and need more than a couple of hours to fully wake up and function, for no apparent reason? Odds are you’ve been called lazy or just not a morning person, but as it turns out, morning grogginess is a real thing — and you can fight it.

Image credits: Kinga Cichewicz.

First of all, let’s start with the term. ‘ Morning grogginess’ isn’t really a term you’ll find in the scientific literature. However, several studies do mention sleep inertia and that it’s a real condition that needs to be taken seriously because it can impact not just our mood and productivity, but also our safety and mental health.

Most people who experience sleep inertia say that they need at least 30 minutes to become fully alert, but the feeling can go on for as long as four hours. — and it can happen to everyone. One popular example that of a NASA astronaut on the International Space Station, who reported feeling unproductive after sleeping through two alarms, but you don’t necessarily need to have a demanding or exhausting job to experience it.

In a new study published in the Journal of Sleep Disorders & Therapy in March 2021, researchers from the RMIT University in Melbourne suggest that waking up suddenly may be responsible for sleep inertia and that changing our alarm tone to something more melodic could counteract it.

What makes sleep inertia potentially dangerous?

Sleep inertia may sound more like a minor inconvenience than a threat but, under certain circumstances, it can have serious consequences.

In simpler terms, sleep inertia is a physiological phenomenon marked by symptoms like grogginess and confusion after waking up. Compared to study participants who woke up alert and well-rested, participants with sleep inertia showed lower alertness levels, slower response times, and poorer memory. What’s more, people with sleep inertia also find it harder to make complex decisions and may not be able to be efficient in emergency situations.

The 2021 study highlighted the risks of sleep inertia for emergency responders, such as fire and police officers and military personnel, because they have to take difficult, real-world decisions immediately after waking up. The study also cited an air crash disaster, whose causes have been linked to sleep inertia: the pilot, suddenly woken up from an in-flight nap, could not make the critical decisions needed to avoid the accident where 158 people lost their lives.

In recent years, scientists have explored the importance of auditory treatments in emergency situations and found that high-frequency alarms were better at reducing the symptoms of sleep inertia.

To counter the effects of sleep inertia, first, we have to first understand what causes it, and research shows that the main cause behind it is sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a persistent issue in modern society, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to explore its risks. For example, one 2017 study found that insufficient sleep, apart from being harmful to mental health, leads to poor work and academic performance and requires hundreds of billions of dollars in spending every year. What’s more, people who struggle with sleep inertia are more likely to be involved in accidents and require hospitalization.

Music could help combat sleep inertia

If you wake up suddenly, right in the middle of a sleep cycle, or you didn’t get enough sleep, it’s normal to experience some degree of sleep inertia. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to ease the symptoms. Among the most effective ones, researchers included having a cup of coffee, a hot shower, or light treatments.

But the biggest part of the research went toward understanding the impact of the sounds we wake up to on our mood and alertness. If you wake up with your heart pounding after hearing your alarm and the first thing you want to do is hit snooze and go back to bed, you’re not alone.

The default alarm on your phone may make your sleep inertia worse, and researchers explain that the sudden beeping you hear first thing in the morning should be replaced by something more melodic. To further test the efficiency of melodic alarms, the team of researchers at RMIT University conducted an additional study, where they split the participants into two groups: one that used traditional alarm sounds and one that used melodic tunes. After the participants woke up, researchers asked them to perform a series of tasks on an app. Unsurprisingly, the group that woke up to melodic alarms showed better response times and higher accuracy.

According to the experts at Melody Loops, the easiest way to differentiate between melodic and unmelodic tunes is to try to sing or hum along with them. If you can do that, then that song may help you wake up better. But, if the alarm induces anxiety even when you listen to it in the middle of the day, it’s a good idea to change it. Your ringtone settings are a good place to start with, but you can also download a melodic alarm tune from somewhere else.

Some people say that waking up to their favorite song makes their day better, but that’s debatable since you may end up disliking it. Other good ideas include famously melodic songs, like Here Comes the Sun, by The Beatles, Dancing in the Moonlight, by Toploader, or Happy, by Pharrell, but it’s up to you to choose a song that you really want to start your day with. You can also consider the Bedtime feature on your phone, if you have one, because it wakes you up gradually, with soothing melodies or nature sounds.

At the end of the day, one thing is for sure: although that extra loud alarm will wake you up from heavy sleep, it won’t make your day any better. Apart from causing sleep inertia, loud, unmelodic alarms have also been linked to high blood pressure, high heart rate, and headaches.

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