Neural activity in the noradrenergic locus coeruleus correlates with periods of wakefulness and arousal. However, it is unclear whether tonic or phasic activity in these neurons is necessary or sufficient to induce transitions between behavioral states and to promote long-term arousal. Using optogenetic tools in mice, we found that there is a frequency-dependent, causal relationship among locus coeruleus firing, cortical activity, sleep-to-wake transitions and general locomotor arousal. We also found that sustained, high-frequency stimulation of the locus coeruleus at frequencies of 5 Hz and above caused reversible behavioral arrests. These results suggest that the locus coeruleus is finely tuned to regulate organismal arousal and that bursts of noradrenergic overexcitation cause behavioral attacks that resemble those seen in people with neuropsychiatric disorders.