Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Art of Napping

Do you ever take naps? If you do, are other people aware of your napping? It wasn’t so long ago that napping was seen as a sign of weakness. Then we realized very famous people regularly took naps: Winston Churchill, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Johannes Brahms, John D. Rockefeller.

We might even say these "nap models" could credit some of their success to naps. None of them could have accomplished what they did if they were sleep deprived. Their output demanded mental and physical alertness which is not possible for those who are sleep deprived. Yet more people are sleep deprived today than what we need in a healthy society. Unfortunately, two-thirds of Americans are sleep deprived according to a poll taken in 2000 by the National Sleep Foundation.

Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night — few of us get it. So what’s the point of getting so much sleep? The answer is that it makes us less dangerous. For example, we know that car crashes and other accidents are often the result of sleep deprivation. Many people use late night driving tricks like drinking caffeine, turning on loud music, talking aloud to oneself in order to stay awake. Napping is a much more effective alternative. If a tired driver were to take a sixty minute nap before getting in the car, alertness could be improved for up to ten hours.

For those whom alertness is vital, napping also increases performance. One such study was done on pilots who took a twenty-six minute nap during their flight. The results showed a thirty-four percent improvement in performance and a fifty-four percent improvement in overall alertness.

Napping can sometimes reverse the effects of too little sleep. Some studies have demonstrated that naps are as good as an entire night of sleep on certain types of memory tasks. Many studies have agreed that naps can make our late afternoon hours as good as our morning hours. The participants in these studies found that an early afternoon nap boosted their performance back to morning levels.

Napping also helps us to become more productive, alert and creative. Naps can even improve our mood. One study, from Harvard University, showed the effectiveness that naps had in reversing burnout from a stressful workday.

Napping might also make us healthier and less susceptible to certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, even stress. Some studies have even suggested that naps can lower the risk of excessive weight gain.

With all these benefits, why don’t more people nap? William Anthony is a psychologist and the executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. In his book, The Art of Napping, he explains that even though more people are willing to privately tell others they nap, it is still a forbidden topic in the workplace."Our culture has developed the mistaken belief that productivity and napping are two different extremes," he says. He has coined some funny terms. Unlike some people in European countries, Americans devalue the siesta because they think it diminishes their work output. Dr. Anthony calls us a "nappist society" filled with napaphoics — people who try to make nappers feel guilty. His nickname for people who nap but keep it a secret is a "clapper" — a closet napper.

A humorous aside about Dr. Anthony. His entire family believes in napping. His family is so competitive they can be found having napping contests. No wonder he wrote a book on napping.

How long should you nap? That depends on what you want to accomplish. Naps can vary from a few minutes to more than an hour. Sometimes the "pretend nap" can also be effective. This is a nap that is not a nap — you lay down, close your eyes and never fall asleep. Just relaxing and letting your mind drift peacefully can also be restorative.

Some people take catnaps of about twenty minutes. Even this short amount of time can give you benefits in concentration and alertness. Additionally your mood may improve. If you need to be immediately alert after your short nap, you can turn your catnap into what is called a caffeine nap. This is done by ingesting caffeine (caffeinated beverage or caffeine pill) before napping. Since caffeine takes about twenty to thirty minutes to kick in, soon after you wake up you will be alert and full of energy.

If you sleep longer — up to forty-five minutes — your nap may also include REM sleep (dreaming). This stage of sleep improves creative thinking and lets your brain process information more effectively. Napping even longer will cause your brain to experience all five stages of sleep including slow-wave sleep. If you have a long nap in the morning, you will have more REM sleep; long afternoon naps produce more slow-wave sleep. If you choose an extended nap be sure to avoid being awakened before you automatically wake up. Being awakened during slow-wave sleep will produce "sleep inertia" — a condition that makes you feel disoriented and foggy headed. You may even feel more sleepy than you did before napping.

A psychologist at Cornell University, James Maas, developed something called the power nap. In his book, Power Sleep, he suggests that naps should take place about eight hours after we wake up from our night’s sleep. The power nap needs to quit just prior the slow-wave sleep so that you can awake fully alert with no drowsiness. Some power nappers set an alarm so that they don’t slip into slow-wave sleep.

Typically, people think naps are only for people who don’t get enough sleep. Two Japanese researchers have shown that napping can improve mental performance even if a person has had a full night’s sleep. Naps, then, are important. You need to find the best napping style for you. There is no one best length of time. If I have nothing scheduled, I like to nap until I wake up. Sometimes when I feel really tired, I might nap for only twenty to thirty minutes. Other times, I’ll tell myself that I only need a few minutes rest and will awake an hour or more later. At other times, I feel like I have not napped at all and decide to get up finding myself surprised by the clock that I had actually slept. Do what works for you.

Happy Napping.

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