I was never a napper before my heart attack. Naps, I used to believe, were only for people like my Dad, whose custom was to doze off after lunch for half an hour or so on the LaZBoy in our farmhouse. But now, I love naps! And because I live with ongoing cardiac symptoms (thanks to a subsequent diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease), I need those naps. If I skip my daily afternoon nap, I pay for it later by feeling sick and shaky.
Author/napper Toni Bernhard recently described in her wonderful Psychology Today column why naps are so important:
“Most people who are chronically ill benefit from scheduling at least one rest period into their day because it helps keep symptoms from flaring.”
Yet paradoxically, she also notes that taking a “time out” by pausing to rest can be one of the hardest challenges that chronically ill patients face.
Sometimes we just don’t want to admit the need to rest, and sometimes, if we’re still in the workforce, we don’t even have the option to rest when we need to. But as I wrote here, humans (whether they are living with a chronic illness or not) experience two periods of what sleep scientists call “forceful, persuasive sleepiness”:
- around 2-4 a.m.
- around 1-3 p.m.
An afternoon nap during that latter period, like the traditional siestas of hot weather countries, allows us to grab some of the benefits of the sleep cycle without committing to a full eight hours.
Toni offers two possible reasons that may explain why so many chronically ill people resist that urge to nap when other people are around:
♥ We don’t want to miss the opportunity for in-person contact
Toni describes her life with chronic illness as pretty isolated.
“When people come over, it’s special, even though I can only comfortably hang out for an hour or two. Most of the time, I go over the limit that my body can handle. When I do this, the symptoms of my illness start to intensify, but I ignore the signals because I’m enjoying myself so much.”
When two family friends came over for an early dinner recently, for example, she was having such a good time that she ignored her husband’s prompts that it was time for her to lie down. (She says he always knows when it’s time because he has spent years observing changes in Toni’s face and body posture that tell him she’s used up all her energy stores).
“Because I stayed too long, I was unable to go to a wedding two days later – a special event for me personally because, not only have I known the bride since she was born, but my husband was conducting the ceremony. Lying on my bed during the event, I realized that had I left the Friday gathering when I should have, the likelihood was high that I could have gone to the wedding, even if just for a short time. Hopefully, I’ll do better in the future.”
♥ We’re concerned that others will judge us negatively if we get up and leave the room.
Several years ago, a person who’d been visiting Toni and her husband (who is also named Tony), said in a negative tone to her: “You just disappeared!” After that incident, she started to wonder if she should leave the room when she needs to rest:
“I became reluctant to leave a social gathering because I was afraid people would think I was being rude and anti-social (my illness is invisible to all but the few who are with me a lot).”
Even though she acknowledges that she could simply say something like, “Excuse me, but I have to lie down,” she also hates interrupting “especially with something that switches the topic to my illness.”
But most of the time, she says she’s finally reached the point where she doesn’t mind negative judgement for leaving when she needs to rest. She sees this as an act of self-care and self-compassion – and a top priority for all of us.
But sometimes, we also resist resting even when we’re alone. Here are Toni’s thoughts on two reasons for this, too:
♥ Resting brings our symptoms to the forefront of our attention because we’re no longer distracted by the world around us.
Sometimes, says Toni, she can put off lying down to rest because, when she does, she immediately feels her symptoms more intensely (for her, that typically means pain, heart palpitations, or a headache).
“But, of course, by not resting when my body needs to, those symptoms are already intensifying; this, in turn, increases my resistance to lying down since lying down brings those symptoms to the forefront of my attention. It’s a vicious cycle.”
♥ Resting goes against our cultural conditioning that we should be doing as much as we can at all times.
Toni reminds us that we live in a culture that values doing over being.
“I was taught that I wasn’t making the most of each day if I wasn’t working hard all the time, and that resting or napping was a sign of weakness.”
But she now believes that, for those who live with a chronic illness, “making the most of each day” does in fact include resting or napping. This may require us to overcome years of cultural conditioning and habit, although she adds:
“It’s definitely worth the effort for all of us to change this harmful habit.”
It may be especially worth that effort to get into the habit of napping in order to benefit our heart health. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that an afternoon nap can provide cardiovascular benefits, including lower blood pressure. Timing is also important, and so is being able to actually fall asleep (not just lying there resting); the time period between lights out and the onset of actual sleep was associated with the largest acute reduction in blood pressure.(1)
As I wrote here, here are a few basic guidelines if you’re a novice napper:
- Best nap length: short. Naps for longer than one hour will make it harder for you to wake up and resume your daily activities – even a 20 minute snooze can enhance alertness, concentration, mood and coordination. Try not to nap too close to bedtime so your normal nighttime sleep won’t be affected.
- Best position: lying down. But if you’re not able to make it to a bed or a couch, it is possible to nap in a chair; it can, however, take longer to fall asleep sitting up.
- Best surroundings: dimly lit, safe, quiet, and just a bit on the warm side – but not so warm that you slip into a too-deep sleep. Sleep masks offer both the darkness you need as well as gentle pressure to relax tense muscles around the eyes. White noise like a fan or quiet music in the background can help mask noisy distractions from those annoying people who are not napping.
- Best state of mind: a nap intention, such as “I will relax into a 20-minute nap.” Allow yourself to disconnect your thoughts for a few moments, breathing deeply and steadily. Set an alarm for yourself so you don’t snooze beyond your nap goal.
Toni Bernhard was a lawyer and a law professor for 22 years at the University of California-Davis until a serious chronic illness forced her to retire. Her three highly recommended books are How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She writes a regular column in Psychology Today, called Turning Straw Into Gold: Life Through a Buddhist Lens, and lives in Davis, California with her husband Tony and their gray lab, Scout. Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information about her writing.
(1) G. Atkinson et al., “Acute Changes in Cardiovascular Function During the Onset Period of Daytime Sleep: Comparison to Lying Awake and Standing”, Journal of Applied Physiology, 2007 Oct; 103(4):1332-82007.
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