The Great Nap Debate

Most sleep experts advise insomniacs to avoid taking naps during the day. And this makes good sense if your primary cause of insomnia is a messed-up sleep schedule.

For example, suppose you traveled out of the country and came back with a case of jet lag, which causes you to feel wide awake during the night when you should be sleeping and sleepy during daylight hours. Your circadian rhythms have become out of whack because you crossed so many time zones, and it’s going to take a while to get your sleep schedule back to normal.

Jet lag is a common first cause of insomnia, and if you remain calm while you patiently follow a sensible sleep-hygiene routine, it will go away soon. And one of the helpful things you can do is to avoid napping during the day until your body gets the message that nighttime is for sleeping.

As another example, suppose you are a second-year law school student who has just survived the final exams of the last term before winter break. You stayed up night after night studying and writing and working, both alone and with your classmates, using an exhilarating combination of caffeine and adrenaline to get you through the last few weeks. You catch sleep when you can, no matter what time of day or night it comes, but so what? You’re still young and healthy, and soon it’ll be all over and you can relax with family and friends and finally get some decent sleep.

Wait, what’s that again, it didn’t work out quite as you planned? No surprise. Now your body thinks taking naps at 10:00 AM and reading law books at 3:00 AM is “normal.” Nonetheless, if you remain calm while you patiently follow a sensible sleep hygiene routine, which includes avoiding all those odd-hour naps, you’ll get back to your regular sleep schedule soon enough.

Did you read the part about remaining calm? Missed it? OK, let’s go into the all-too-common scenario of what happens when your simple case of circadian-rhythm disruption turns into a raging inferno of sleep-anxiety-induced chronic insomnia.

Sleep anxiety, as we all know, is the best way to turn a simple and routine no-big-deal sleep issue into something not at all simple and a very big deal.

Now you have layers upon layers of paradoxical anguish, and it’s not going to go away as quickly as it would have if your anxious voice had only been more cooperative with your rational voice. Along with your fear of not getting enough sleep, you develop a firm conviction that, in all likelihood, you will never sleep well again. Ever. And to top it off, you are probably lying awake worrying about how your lack of sleep will wreak havoc on your health and sanity.

And in pure paradoxical fashion, the more you want sleep, the less you actually do sleep. The more you reach for it, the farther away it gets. And for that reason, sleep becomes a rare and precious commodity. For some insomniacs the desire for sleep outweighs just about every other desire. And for some, they would give their last dollar for a whole night of this rare and special experience called sleeping.

I am not acquainted with any certified sleep experts and of course I am not one myself. But from the perspective of this special brand of desperation, I’m going to go against mainstream expert advice. I’m going to say it’s OK to nap.

When you are feeling very anxious over how much sleep you aren’t getting, taking a short nap serves two purposes: it helps you feel less tired (which is the effect of insomnia that worries you the most), and it reassures you to know that you got a little bit more sleep to help make up the deficit.

Let’s talk about that deficit.

Those Hours Add Up

Here’s one big benefit to napping: the hour of sleep you get in the afternoon can be added to the hours you get at night to make the total hours a little less depressing. In general, most people can function pretty well with five hours of sleep. This is considered a baseline amount of sleep by certain sleep experts, and I have confirmed this personally through my own experience. If I can get five hours, I feel pretty decent. Three or four hours, fatigue kicks in, both mental and physical. That means sore muscles and brain fog, along with increased hunger and of course irritability. And that’s taking sleep anxiety and its emotional fallout completely out of the equation.

However, four hours at night plus one hour in the afternoon add up to the baseline, and the difference is noticeable. Less brain fog, less irritability and the fatigue is better.

But perhaps more important is the mental relief you get from knowing you got more sleep. For people with simple insomnia (uncomplicated by sleep anxiety), this might sound silly. For people with complicated insomnia (layers and snowballs of sleep anxiety), this is no joke. Worrying about the health effects of insomnia is a major factor in fueling the vicious cycle.

Conditioned Insomnia and the Paradoxical Nap

When you have conditioned insomnia, nighttime is not the right time. As soon as bedtime rolls around, you begin to feel anxious and depressed because you’re anticipating a bad night. There are many ways to get over conditioned insomnia. But while you’re waiting for your pleasant bedtime routine to take effect, or to make those comforting adjustments to your room environment, or just waiting until your CBT starts to sink into your unconscious, a nap might give you a little boost. You wouldn’t be the only insomniac who can fall asleep better during the day than at night.

The Downside of Napping

You knew this was coming, right? Now I’ll make a confession. I personally love naps and when I’m having insomnia I pretty much live for naps. So much in fact, that once during a bout of sleep anxiety that I managed to keep under control with daily naps, I had to skip one because of an appointment. Can you guess what happened? I got more anxious knowing that I had skipped the nap, and I slept less the following night than before! This might have been funny if it weren’t so, well, not funny. You know what I mean.

My point? Yes, you can become “addicted” to naps, just like you can to any other crutch, whether in pill form or any other form, to soothe your anxiety about sleep. So be careful not to turn napping into a crutch or a magic pill. I know, easier said than done.

The other downside is one I don’t really have to tell you. Naps can and do interfere with your sleep schedule. So again, if your main objective is to reestablish a sleep schedule that has gotten way out of whack, you should certainly avoid naps.

Time for a Pro/Con List on Napping

You must weigh the benefits you get from napping alongside the downsides you may have from delayed sleep at night. For serious cases of sleep anxiety, this might not be an issue, because you’re not sleeping well at night anyway. For less severe cases, it might be more beneficial to forego the naps to see if you can fall asleep faster at night.

Some Guidelines for Napping—Really? Guidelines? Yep.

To minimize the sleep-disruption effects of napping, it’s helpful to remember two simple guidelines:

  1. Limit the nap to one hour or less. About one hour seems to give the most benefits for the least amount of disruption. More than one might seem lovely, but you’ll pay the price at night. However, if you are severely sleep-deprived, barely functional on either a physical or mental level, I’m going to give you permission to pull out all the stops and sleep as long as you can. Just get back to a more limited schedule when you feel better.
  2. Schedule the nap as early in the afternoon as possible– usually a nap somewhere between 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM will help you feel better without causing too much sleep delay or disruption. A late nap, such as at 5:00 PM comes dangerously close to bedtime. However, once again, if you are feeling severely sleep deprived and really need some shuteye, just don’t worry about it. Sleep all you want when you can, and enjoy it. Then take a more sensible approach to the nap schedule when you feel more functional.

I hope you’ve found this meandering essay on naps at least somewhat helpful. As always, if something you try isn’t working out for you, by all means, stop doing that thing and try something else or consult with a professional. Sleep anxiety is a tough nut to crack, so don’t forget to practice CBT for insomnia on a daily basis for at least 30 minutes per day. You’ll be glad you did.

One Response to “The Great Nap Debate”

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  1. Fabian Tjong says:

    great article, I myself used to powernap and remember to wake up feeling refreshed full of energy.

    Unfortunately in my country it is looked down upon to power nap, especially at work.

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