A few days ago I was feeling quite drowsy and kind of “blah” all afternoon. After work I lay down and napped for a mere 6 minutes. My alarm went off, and I popped up, feeling incredible! Then I did a little dance, rapidly punched the air around me a bunch of times, and went about my evening feeling totally awesome. It was amazing, and it inspired me to finally write this entry on power naps.
If you’ve never experienced the joy (and sometimes pure exhilaration) of a successful power nap, it’s like nothing else. Power naps can reduce burnout and stress and increase alertness, energy level, mood, cognition, memory, and creativity, all of which can have a positive influence on other aspects of your life, your job, relationships, etc. But first, what is a power nap?
Simply put, power naps are short naps, with a strong emphasis on “short”. They can last anyway from 2-3 minutes to 30 minutes. Basically, you need only enough time to fall asleep, and give your brain and body a rest, a chance to restart/reboot. It’s actually quite similar to restarting a computer that is lagging.
The single most important thing when power napping is not to oversleep. Once you’ve gone past the 30 minute mark you are in danger of death. Just kidding! But, you are in danger of feeling even more tired, and extremely groggy. Again, the trick is in the brevity of the power nap.
However, some research revealed even greater improvements in task performance after a 1 hour nap. They found that 1 hour long naps allow for up to 4 times as much “slow wave sleep” the type of sleep that they say is characteristic of memory consolidation, learning and restoring perceptual processing.
In my modest opinion, a nap that lasts more than 20 minutes has three major downfalls: 1. you have a greater chance of “sleep inertia” (waking up groggy and not being able to pull yourself out it). 2. You’ve defeated some of the purpose of the power nap, in that it really doesn’t take up much of your time and 3. if 10 or 15 minutes isn’t enough and you feel like you need an hour nap that probably means that you aren’t getting enough rest at night and that you really just need to adjust your nighttime sleep habits.
In any case, you need to find out what works best for you. Some people take more time to fall asleep and just won’t get anything out of a 5 minute nap. For me, I can set my alarm to go off 8 minutes later, take 1-3 minutes to fall asleep and get in a quick dream, and wake up feeling amazing. This is inline with Lahl et al. (2008) who found that even 6 minutes of sleep can be beneficial. But what is it about power naps that works so well and feels so good?
The power in power naps have a number of explanations. Researchers at NIMH suggest that much the fatigue or “burn out” we experience mid-day has to do with vision. As we work, the visual cortex becomes loaded with information that is need of processing, and memory consolidation. They suggest that burnout is the brains mechanism for limiting any further influx of information so that the work we have already done can be successfully consolidated in memory.
Another explanation of the benefits of power naps is that they have been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Allowing cortisol levels to return to baseline can have wide-ranging impacts on your mood, breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, digestion and more. I had hoped to find more research on the biochemical and hormonal changes that occur as a result of power napping, but was unable to find it… From my experience I feel an increased alertness so intense that it can’t be explained by resting the visual cortex or a decrease in some hormone. I would suspect that some surge in adrenaline or epinephrine may be involved. If anyone knows of this sort of research, I’d love to see it.
It might take some practice, but once mastered, power naps are a wonderful tool, whether it be during the work day, or a Friday evening before you go out for the night. And, power naps are healthier and more effective than any amount of caffeine. This lady is not nearly pumped up enough about the effectiveness of power naps. Probably because if she was smiling this picture would be way to ridiculous.