To Nap or Not to Nap?

That is a big question in the world of insomnia

Most insomnia programs that do not simply mask symptoms with drugs focus on behavioral and life style choices that affect sleep.

Most of this is good overall health advice.  Who can argue with recommendations such as getting regular exercise and exposure to sunlight, sleeping in a peaceful dark, quiet room, or monitoring caffeine and alcohol intake?  Good suggestions for everybody.

But there are two common recommendations — sometimes even stated as “rules” — that often cause confusion or even distress for some people.

To nap or not to nap?  That is a big question in the world of insomnia.

Most programs come down pretty hard on naps.  I completely agree that a long nap late in the day should be avoided. In my bad periods, I certainly had many evenings where I would fall asleep on the couch after work simply because I was too exhausted to do anything else.  I would wake up feeling pretty refreshed, but it would effectively ruin my night’s sleep.  This is what the “no nap rule” is trying to prevent.

However, a short mid-day nap can be an excellent thing.  By short I mean 20-50 minutes, so you stay within the realm of light sleep, by mid-day I mean before 3:00-ish.  This little gem has several benefits:

  1. It can completely rejuvenate your energy for the afternoon, which, while often a sluggish time for average sleepers, can be almost intolerable for insomniacs.
  2. It can stave off the need to take an evening nap, which is the dangerous time for interfering with night sleep
  3. It allows your body to de-stress and relax in the middle of the day, which is great for sleeping at night.  My favorite relaxation tape begins with these words: “This is a very important time of day: a time to renew and revitalize, to release the pressure of your personality from the nervous system.”
  4. It can serve as a “safety net,” and take some of the pressure off getting the perfect sleep at night, which actually leads to better sleep at night.

Now I know not everyone has the kind of job or life situation that allows for such luxuries as a nap.  But I’ve had clients who do have the time and inclination to take a nap, but have been scared off by sleep coaches and programs that strongly state “No naps allowed.”  I just want to affirm that if someone is able able to take a short mid-day nap and wants to, then by all means they should.  A short nap in the middle of the day should not interfere with night time sleep and provides these other benefits as well.

Another “rule” that has caused some confusion and dismay is that you do nothing in bed but sleep or make love.  Many programs are very strict about this.  The idea behind this rule is to create such a strong connection between bed and sleep that just the act of getting into bed and lying down triggers the falling asleep process.  Again, I totally understand the concept.  As both a teacher and a student I had no boundaries between my bed and my work.  Work came into bed with me on a regular basis – largely to keep me from falling asleep on my desk or the couch.  However, my boundaries were so blurred I never really stopped working at night, and even when I was asleep it was not very deep or rejuvenating.

There is, however, a huge difference between working in bed and reading something  pleasant, relaxing, funny, or uplifting.  I have now created a strong association between reading something pleasant for 15 minutes and then slipping into sleep.  I know for myself I need a few minutes to wind down when I get into bed and reading and crossword puzzles are the two best things I have found.  The minute I get sleepy, I turn out the light and slide under the covers.

Reading on the couch or somewhere else allows for either the danger of falling asleep there or losing the precious sleep window as I get up to go to bed.  One word of caution, however: beware of backlit devices.  While checking Facebook or e-mail or playing an online game can feel very relaxing, the light from the device is actually sending wake-up signals to the brain… which is the opposite of what we want.  If you have trouble winding down and falling asleep at night, an old-fashioned book with paper pages that you turn is a better choice.

I have actually had a client who was pretty distressed by a sleep coach who told her she wasn’t allowed to read in bed or take naps any more.  We had to do quite a bit of tapping to overcome the stress that was created by these strict rules.

In general I would advise not getting too hung up on any “rules” regarding sleep.  I have found that sleep is largely about “allowing,” and much less about “controlling.”  The minute I try to control my sleep too tightly or follow anybody’s “rules,” sleep eludes me.  If taking a short afternoon nap provides relaxation and rejuvenation in the middle of the day and reading something light, funny or uplifting in bed provides some needed unwinding time before turning out the light, then by all means do what works!

Copyright © 2015 Beyond Insomnia, All rights reserved.