Burned-out? Sleep deprived? Desperate for help? Throw away your prescriptions and learn to nap.
Everyone should be lying down on the job, according to sleep expert Gregg Jacobs, Ph.D., author of Say Good Night to Insomnia. "The benefits of napping are widely researched and scientifically validated," says Jacobs, who is also an insomnia specialist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "We hope the time will come when it's routine during the workday to take a 20-minute nap instead of a 20-minute coffee break."
That day has already arrived for me. Starting in my late twenties, I had insomnia for more than six years. By the time I was knocked flat on my back by chronic fatigue syndrome in my early thirties, I was desperate to find relief.
I tried lots of solutions, including homeopathic remedies, sleeping pills and herbs. Nothing seemed to help, and everything had weird side effects. I'd been studying Buddhist meditation for years, and I determined that the answer to my problem was spiritual. I asked my teachers for a solution. One of the most respected Tibetan lamas, Gelek Rinpoche, told me I would get better soon but that spiritual practices didn't hold the answer. "So what do I do?" I asked. His answer took a minute to sink in: "For ten minutes, three times a day, lie down, close your eyes and do nothing." Basically, Rinpoche was telling me to nap.
Parents and teachers are constantly trying to get kids to take naps. Why? Part of it is self-preservation—they want a break from "How does this work?" "When will we be there?" and "Why do I have to share?" But the other part, the bigger part, is to get an overexcited little mind and body to relax so that this mini person doesn't get cranky, exhausted and, eventually, sick. As grown-ups, we don't stop needing this kind of care.
In their book The Art of Napping at Work, Camille and Bill Anthony report that we're more sleep deprived than ever and that it's causing us big trouble. The authors note that "sleepiness is right behind drunkenness as the primary cause of auto accidents." They also point out that the frequency of industrial accidents increases at the traditional napping time, between 1 and 4 P.M. Clearly, a nap would be a good idea. We're all allowed coffee breaks—so why don't we nap instead?
One obstacle is the embarrassment that surrounds the desire for a nap. A colleague of mine confided that she'd been taking naps on her office couch for years, but not even her assistant knew it. She'd shut the door and tell him she was on a conference call. Another problem is that many of us become frustrated if we try to take a nap but don't actually fall asleep. And then there's the worry that if we do fall asleep, we'll wake up so groggy we won't be able to function.
But a nap can be the most rejuvenating thing you do in the middle of the day, and it may even increase your productivity. You can even learn to nap sitting straight up or in a meditation posture on the floor. Of course, you don't want to sleep for too long, so you should monitor the length of your siesta. (I've found 20 minutes is optimal.) "If you nap for more than an hour, you'll go into a deep sleep. When you wake up, you'll have 'nap inertia' and your performance will be sluggish for about an hour afterward," says Jacobs. "Once that subsides, though, your performance will be enhanced."
Next: 4 steps to settle in for a nap
According to Jesse Hanley, M.D., the reason we need an afternoon break is that most of us are walking around with burned-out systems. We've completely depleted our adrenal glands, a pair of thumb-size endocrine organs on top of our kidneys that plays a crucial role in maintaining energy levels. "Between 3 and 5 P.M., the adrenals are in decline toward a nighttime pattern," says Hanley. "The more exhausted our adrenals are [i.e., the more stressed-out we are], the bigger the crash we have at that time of day." If we don't nap, we experience anxiety or reach for a stimulant—sugar, carbohydrates or caffeine—in an attempt to get through the adrenal drain. "It's very clear that renewal processes, such as restoring the adrenals, only happen when we sleep," says Hanley. "If people were willing to take 15 to 30 minutes, put their feet up, close their eyes and give in to what their body was really asking for, they would have that time of ultimate repair." Other sleep experts add that naps can help you become more creative and productive. I've found this to be true as well. More often than not, I've emerged from a nap with a solution to a problem that I had been struggling with.
Napping requires discipline, and that takes time to develop. I worked at it for more than a year before I learned how to de-stress enough to nap. Here's what you can do to get started:
Pinpoint the moments when you need to relax your mind. If you pay attention, you'll see there are times when you just don't feel like you're all there.
Go to a spot where you can sit comfortably—you don't have to lie down to relax, and many of us can't recline at work anyway.
Shut off the lights and the ringer on the phone, if you can. Eye masks are also good for getting in the mood.
Set your alarm for 10 minutes at first, 20 if you're at home or can take more time. I find that if I nap for much longer than 30 minutes, I feel sluggish for quite a while.
Close your eyes. Scan your body for tension and begin to let go. If your mind races, gently begin to let your attention fall to the center of your heart and try to follow your breathing as it passes there. Relax. Hold your attention very loosely.
That's it. You may drift off or you may not, but after about ten minutes you should feel a little more refreshed. As you begin to feel more comfortable with napping, increase the length of your sessions.
I still don't sleep deeply when I nap. For me the point is to try to let go of whatever is keeping me awake. I lie down or sit still, depending on where I am, with my eyes closed; no matter what urges I have, I don't move for at least ten minutes. If I have to set an alarm to make myself less anxious about drifting off, I set one. Those few minutes of quiet are more refreshing than being in a nice, clean pool on a hot summer day.
I could go on, but right now it's four o'clock. It's time for my nap. Don't tell my boss.
The recuperative effects of an afternoon nap can more than make up for the loss of an hour of nighttime sleep.
Multiple naps can lessen the impact of subsequent sleep deprivation. For example, an M.D. would perform far better if she were to take a few naps before going on call for 48 hours.
Even a 15-minute rest can improve your alertness, performance and mood for hours.
Naps, not caffeine, can help prevent motor-vehicle accidents caused by sleep deprivation. A tired driver who drinks coffee to stay awake is still likely to succumb to "micro sleeps"–brief naps lasting four or five seconds. In that short time, a car going 55 miles per hour may travel more than 100 yards, which can easily cause a fatal accident.
You'll be able to work longer. Research on transoceanic sailors in the Around Alone race–which takes place every four years–showed that by taking frequent naps, the sailors could function for days at a time with only three hours of sleep in each 24-hour period. (The inventor Thomas Alva Edison was famous for catnapping in his office to help him work through the night.)