Are Naps Good for Anxiety?
About one out of three adults in the United States takes a nap on a typical day, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center.
People nap for all sorts of reasons – sleeping off a rough week, catching up on lost sleep or resting up before working a late shift. For some people, though, the reasons they tuck into a nap are a little harder to define.
“There are times, particularly when I have something really big going on, when I’ll become so incapacitated knowing I have a million different things to do that my body ends up saying, ‘You know what? Let’s just sleep,’” says Stephen, a 32-year-old travel agent, to The Cut. “I’ll go and lie down and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I just started calling them my ‘fear naps.’”
Anxiety and sleep are intrinsically connected, according to a Healthline article. Many people with anxiety suffer from chronic insomnia, which leads to increased feelings of anxiety.
“Sleep deprivation can elevate the risk for anxiety disorders. Insomnia can also worsen the symptoms of anxiety disorders or prevent recovery,” according to the Healthline article. “Anxiety can also contribute to disrupted sleep, often in the form of insomnia or nightmares.”
If someone is chronically tired from insomnia or anxiety, turning to sleeping during the day is a natural response. But is napping helpful or harmful for anxiety?
The Upside to Naps
In some cases, an about 30 minute, well-timed nap “can be a nice way to recharge and reframe thinking,” according to psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist Alex Dimitriu, M.D., in VeryWell Mind. “In a sleep-deprived society, fatigue is all too often the cause of low mood, low motivation, and increased anxiety and impulsivity. In these cases, sleeping more often will help.”
While the National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults get seven to nine hours of sleep at night, more than a third of us fall short of reaching seven hours per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Research has found that for some people, napping can have a measurable, positive impact on health, including reducing stress, improving memory and boosting the immune system.
“A nap can help ease stress and may even turn a sour mood around,” shares an article on the Cleveland Clinic website. “Research has shown that after a midday nap, people are less impulsive and can deal better with frustration.”
Naps may support elements of cognitive health, such as memory. “Sleep plays an important role in stabilizing or enhancing memory for newly learned information […],” according to a report in Nature. “Daytime naps are sometimes as effective as nocturnal sleep in facilitating these memory processes.”
Immune System Benefits
The amount of sleep you get may be linked to healthy immune system function. “Lack of sleep, on the other hand, can throw off the immune system. Evidence indicates that in both the short- and long-term, sleep deprivation can make you sick,” according to SleepFoundation.org.
How Long You Should Nap
If you’re ready to curl up for a healthy nap – how long should you aim to sleep for? Napping can disrupt your body’s natural sleep cycle, so it’s important to understand and set time limits for mid-day shut eye.
“Researchers say a 20-minute nap is the best length. A short nap like this allows your mind and body to rest without entering the deeper stages of sleep,” according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
If you’d like to nap for a longer amount of time, the NSF recommends allowing 60 to 90 minutes so you can end your nap in a lighter stage of sleep.
“Medium-length naps of around 45 minutes can be problematic because you will likely wake up during slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage, which can leave you with that groggy feeling – called sleep inertia – when you wake up,” advises the NSF website.
Choosing the Right Time and Place
It’s important to choose when and where you’d like to rest.
“Most sleep experts recommend napping no later than 2 pm,” according to SleepFoundation.org. “[…] napping prior to the mid-afternoon results in a combination of light and REM sleep, whereas napping after 2 pm results in more slow-wave sleep. This may affect your ability to fall asleep at a reasonable time later that night, potentially disrupting your nocturnal sleep cycle.”
The Mayo Clinic points out that the best time for your nap depends on your lifestyle.
“Individual factors, such as your need for sleep, your sleeping schedule, your age and your medication use, also can play a role in determining the best time of day to nap,” the Mayo Clinic website states.
And if you’re wondering if you should head to bed for your afternoon nap – or if just nodding off on the couch is OK — it depends. For the best results, the Mayo Clinic advises that you should “create a restful environment. Nap in a quiet, dark place with a comfortable room temperature and few distractions.”
When Naps Aren’t the Answer
Naps may offer health benefits, but it’s important to consider why you’re taking them. If you are taking them to escape normal life, then it may be a sign of a more serious problem.
For example, in the YouTube series “If I Could Tell You One Thing,” decorated Olympic gymnast Simone Biles talked about the trauma, depression and anxiety she experienced after suffering abuse from the former team doctor, Larry Nassar.
“And so I denied it and I buried it. And I was very depressed. I, like, never left my room. I was sleeping all the time. And I told, like, one of my lawyers, I said, ‘I sleep all the time, because it’s the closest thing to death,’” Biles said.
Napping instead of facing your mental symptoms may allow you to temporarily escape your feelings, yet likely isn’t good for you in the long run.
“Unfortunately, in the long term, this [napping] might cause more stress — especially if you neglect your responsibilities in order to nap,” according to an article on the website PsychCentral. “While avoiding your problems can be tempting, it also means that you’re not directly dealing with the root of your stress.”
Further, some experts recommend against napping if you suffer from insomnia – which is another reason to talk to your clinician about your sleep habits.
Dr. Sanjay Patel, director of the Center for Sleep and Cardiovascular Outcomes Research at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that one way to improve sleep for those with insomnia is to avoid taking naps.
“No matter how poorly you’ve slept, you want to force yourself to get up and you want to avoid naps during the day,” Dr. Patel told NBC News. “You will be training your brain to recognize that if it doesn’t sleep during the time you’ve given it, it won’t get any more sleep.”
If you’re worried about your napping, or you are turning to naps more often to get through the day, talk with your doctor or healthcare provider. They can evaluate whether your napping could be related to an underlying physical issue or a mental health condition, like an anxiety disorder.
Talking to Your Doctor about Napping and Sleep
Why should you talk to your doctor about your sleep habits? Insomnia and anxiety are very real medical conditions that can and should be treated.
“If you think that you might have insomnia, talk to your doctor. Along with a physical exam, your doctor might recommend that you keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks,” according to a Healthline article. “If your doctor thinks that a sleep disorder such as insomnia is a probability, they might recommend that you see a sleep specialist.”
Napping with Purpose
At the end of the day, sleep is important. And if you’re considering sleeping mid-day, make sure you keep those power naps powerful.
“Napping requires some knowledge and some planning to do well and not have it interfere with your nightly rest,” writes psychologist and sleep medicine expert Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “I think of it as napping with purpose – knowing why you’re napping and making sure you’re doing for the right length of time.”
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