Student lives with narcolepsy: strong emotions cause symptoms


People often joke about laughing so hard that they pass out. For most, this is not something that actually happens, but for Caitlin Ingham, junior in marketing, it is a condition that she deals with on a daily basis.

Ingham has Type 1 Narcolepsy, which is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness coupled with episodes of cataplexy, according to the Narcolepsy Network. A person with cataplexy temporarily loses control of muscular function as a result of strong emotions such as anger, fear, excitement and stress. This state can last anywhere from seconds to minutes.

Ingham said her main triggers are excitement, embarrassment and laughter. When she goes into a cataplectic state, she remains conscious even though she cannot physically move her body.

“All my muscles relax and I lose my breath,” Ingham said. “I’m totally conscious and I can feel things touching me. It’s kind of like when your leg falls asleep and you physically can’t move it.”

Ingham said she was first diagnosed in July 2013, but she experienced symptoms for about three years before doctors made a diagnosis. There is no cure for cataplexy, but Ingham said she takes medications to combat her condition, such as Adderall to help stay awake during the day and an antidepressant to even out the dopamine levels in her brain to keep her from passing out.

Ingham has been dealing with her condition for almost six years and is aware of her triggers and what will send her into a cataplectic state. One of her worst episodes happened while attending college last year.

“Last year I had been really bad about taking my medicine, and I was messing around with my friends when something funny happened and I started to pass out,” Ingham said. “I couldn’t catch myself in time and fell and hit my head and got a concussion.”

Ingham said narcolepsy also affects how she sleeps. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people start their sleep cycle with non-rapid eye movement sleep and then transition to REM sleep after about 90 minutes, which is characterized by vivid dreams and temporary muscle paralysis. Those who suffer from narcolepsy, like Ingham, enter REM sleep within minutes of falling asleep.

“I can enter the REM cycle faster than normal people,” Ingham said. “If I take a 30-minute nap I have a full sleep cycle with a dream. I can also remember all my dreams very vividly, like tastes and smells. It happens every night.”

Ingham also suffers from sleep paralysis, which leaves her unable to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up. She said she is prone to it because of her cataplexy and can be stuck in a paralyzed state for any amount of time from 30 minutes to an hour.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, cataplexy affects males and females equally. It develops with age, but the first signs of it are usually seen in adolescence. Although no one else in Ingham’s family shares her condition, they still feel its impact.

Sarah Ingham, Caitlin’s sister, said she worries about her now that they attend different schools because she does not know who is around her or if they are aware of her condition.

“She can handle herself pretty well, but when people don’t know what’s happening and it could be critical, I worry,” Sarah said.

Alex Dzewaltowski, junior in mechanical engineering and Caitlin’s boyfriend, also said he has some concerns.

“My biggest worry would be where it happens,” Dzewaltowski said. “Just the action of her passing out uncontrolled and hitting the ground can be a huge worry.”

Caitlin said her condition does not affect her as severely as it did when it first started happening, but she still has to stay mindful of it every day to avoid injuries and accidents.