Presence: My awakening to the benefits of afternoon naps

An image of a student napping in the afternoon.
(Emma Tao • The Student Life)

There’s a certain beauty in the human’s ability to recharge, like a battery pack energized with electric juice or a car revved with gasoline. Our charging journeys demand a step away from active existence, a moment or two to live in stillness and return to our realities with a renewed clarity and calm.

As a fidgety and hyperactive child, I actively resented naps and how they forced me away from the ever-consuming action, drama and play of life. I constantly peeped over and under the sheets, checking on my parents to see if they’d fallen asleep, and I’d tiptoe outside to engage in Disney movies or fuse beads.

For little Shreya, each piece of the world she perceived bustled with energy. I longed to pull apart, engage with, become intimate with and question everything. Childhood excitement, however, translated to an unrelenting desire for completion and perfection in later education — a difficult task, of course, given the piles of homework heaped on the typical high school student. I knew the scientific literature on receiving the magical full eight hours of sleep, yet I passively scraped by with a meager six to seven on busy weeknights despite feeling aches and fatigue in class. 

After years, though, especially toward the end of high school and the beginning of college, I gradually felt the fatiguing effects of constant activity, business and questioning. A life absent of moments to pause, be still and rejuvenate was unsustainable, and my body knew to demand a break, a step away from continuous activity manifested in late-night studying, constant physical strain from continual sports seasons and even effort put in regular social upkeep.

Meditation became a prominent way to care for my brain and soul amidst stretches of academic learning, but most recently, I’ve turned to naps, coupled with gifting my body nightly sleep of seven to nine hours in length. After a morning filled with exercise and Zoom meetings, my eyelids droop at the idea of sitting and puzzling through homework.

The post-lunch slump kicks in, and the lens of my consciousness becomes blurred. Around 2 p.m., the bed calls my name, and I lean in for a 30-minute recharge. Spurred by my grandma’s recommendation to take these restful breaks, I now regularly reserve a moment in the day to sleep, even if it means an in-between state of awake and asleep. Despite the crazed current state of the world, one thing is for certain: living — and fine, I admit, being required to stay — at home has made it far easier to head to bed.

To my surprise, the benefits I felt and confirmed via research made these small breaks all the more worth it. As a practitioner of meditation, I often set aside space for a 15-minute meditation each afternoon. Naps mimicked that experience but drove me further into stillness. I put everything aside, set an alarm for any time between 20 and 40 minutes and listened to myself breathe until I fell asleep. Once my alarm dinged, I often felt a little sleepy at first but calmer, clearer, soothed and ready to continue learning.

Research on napping (timing, environment, type of napping) confirmed my experience. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Nap around six to seven hours before nightly sleep. 

One Johns Hopkins scientific article cites 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. as an optimal nap time to not interfere with nightly sleep. I often napped between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., earlier if I slept less the night before or exercised especially hard that morning.

  1. Set an alarm. 

There’s a sense of comfort in setting time aside for a nap. The alarm gave me an excuse to step away from homework and just close my eyes, knowing this was a special space I reserved solely for recollecting my energy. Naps shorter than 20 minutes felt like a clear meditation to me, while naps between 30 and 40 minutes were optimal in clearing my head.

  1. Try not to sleep on a full stomach.

In my napping experiments, I regularly slept an hour or two after eating and felt active after my sleep. The one time I slept directly following lunch, it felt harder for me to wake, leave the bed and carry out normal activities. Research seems divided over whether sleeping after napping limits the quality of sleep, but many scientific studies like this one from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine find that eating before nighttime sleep limits sleep benefits. 

  1. Napping boosts the mood.

Hours of similar routines and the same environment might leave one feeling a little irritable or simply exhausted. I felt this way, and it led me toward meditation at first. Later, I found naps offered the same release and brought me back feeling more peaceful, softer, empathetic with family and friends and more comfortable in the present.

  1. Rest your eyes before closing your eyes.

Putting my computer and phone away five to 10 minutes before I slept helped me fall asleep faster and more deeply. Indeed, at night, I often meditated for 10 to 15 minutes before heading to bed, and this lessened the time it took for me to fall asleep drastically. A slew of scientific articles report the negative effects of screen time on sleep. I’ve also found it easier to fall asleep after reading, writing or meditating.

These are some tips I collected over the past couple of weeks. Mostly, though, I hope that you’ll consider experimenting with naps to allow you to derive more from each moment and be more present in the now. Napping offers the much-needed stillness that business and constant thinking beg from your brain.

Shreya Kriti Kamra PO ’23 is TSL’s health columnist. Having adopted a newly sedentary lifestyle in quarantine, she traverses her home with a book bag.

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