NAPPING RIGHT

It’s human nature to have an energy slump in the afternoon, sometime between 1:00 and 4:00. It’s tied to our circadian rhythm. Two ways to combat midday fatigue: napping and exercising. This blog deals only with the former! (I’ve previously written about sleeping habits here.) On average, adults who nap do so 94.3 days each year.

Power Naps

In the 1990s, James Maas, a social psychologist and sleep expert coined the term power nap, 10 to 20 minutes long, to boost energy and alertness. A power nap is reputed to allow workers to get back to work right away because this amount of sleep does not yet reach the deeper states of a sleep cycle. The napper stays in the lighter stages of non-dreaming sleep. And for some, apparently, it works;  42.7% of U.S. full-time workers say they regularly nap during a break in a typical workday, 

Avoid 30-minute naps.

They cause “sleep inertia,” a groggy state that can last for another 30 minutes after waking up. This is because the body is forced awake right after beginning, but not completing, the deeper stages of sleep. 

A 60-minute nap might be okay.

Sleeping for 60 minutes includes the deepest type of sleep, slow-wave sleep. Because of this, the one-hour nap is ideal for helping an individual better remember faces, names, and facts. However, your brain will not complete a sleep cycle in only 60 minutes, so you may not be very alert for some time after waking up.

The ideal nap is 90-minutes.

This is the length of one full sleep cycle, which includes all the light and deep (REM and dreaming) stages of sleep. A full sleep cycle nap improves procedural and emotional memory (e.g. for playing musical instruments and driving). A 90-minute nap can also significantly boost one’s creativity. Because the nap is a full sleep cycle, waking up should come much easier. (This according to the National Sleep Foundation.)

Actually, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 20 or 90 minutes, but I prefer the latter!

On the other hand, the Mayo Clinic is very specific: the ideal nap occurs between 2pm and 3pm and lasts between 10 and 30 minutes. This takes advantage of one’s normal post-meal dip in energy and, if finished by 3pm, poses the least risk for causing sleeplessness at night.

Among older adults, shorter naps (less than 30 minutes) are reported by adults with better health; long naps (e.g., longer than 90 minutes) have been linked to cardiovascular problems and diabetes, declining cognitive function, and increased mortality.

Benefits of Napping

There are lots of benefits to sneaking in power naps every once in a while.

  • Curb the side effects of temporary sleep deprivation.  If you missed getting adequate sleep the night before, a quick nap can be restorative. 
    • Note: Temporary sleep deprivation refers to a night every once in a while in which you don’t get enough sleep.
  • Improve memory function and job performance.  Younger people definitely benefit from a quick nap in the afternoon, which can help them immensely with their studies, if they are in school. People of all ages can enhance job performance (and physical performance, in general) with a brief period of shut eye. If you feel sluggish while at work or in school, you may be able to improve the situation with a nap.
  • Lower blood pressure. 
  • Prevent mistakes in judgment or accidents while driving or operating machinery.  Drowsy driving is dangerous and can strike anybody at any time.
  • Heal the body. A brief nap can help relieve stress, allow the body to heal inflammation and injury, and improve mood.

Napping Can Be Problematic

  • If you have insomnia, you might exacerbate or even cause it by taking naps.  If you take long naps or nap  later in the afternoon, they may alter your circadian rhythms, leading to trouble with falling asleep at bedtime. On the other hand, people with severe insomnia might find themselves only ever able to take short naps, rather than sleeping all night.
  • If you have unidentified or poorly addressed sleep disorders—for example obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—you will not cure it with naps. 
  • If you are diabetic, or likely to develop diabetes, note that recent research has linked long afternoon naps (over an hour) to Type II Diabetes. Observational studies of more than 300,000 people by the University of Tokyo found a link between long napping and a 45 percent increase in the incidence of diabetes when naps lasted at least 60 minutes.
  • If you don’t know what is causing your daytime fatigue, it might be better to avoid napping altogether.  Aside from sleep disorders, there’s a whole range of other causes, from prescription medications to underlying health problems to depression and mood disorders.

The prevalence of napping in older adults ranges from 20% to 60% in different studies, but is consistently reported to be higher than in other age groups. Age-related changes in circadian rhythm and sleep patterns, cultural beliefs, chronic conditions, medications, and lifestyle changes contribute to the high prevalence of napping in older adults.  

(FYI: If people lived alone in total dark, “days” would be about 25 hours each. However, our body clocks reset each day based on the sun’s light/dark cycles—plus alarm clocks, work schedules, and the world in general.) 

Bottom Line: Both short and long naps can increase alertness and be useful. Choose depending on personal rhythms, why you are napping, and environmental constraints.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SLEEP

Even without pausing to think, people can easily describe their sleep habits. What does your character think and feel about about his or her own ? Is sleep a welcome respite or a necessary evil? What’s necessary for your character to fall asleep—and stay there? Is insomnia a chronic condition, or only within the plot situation? Does your character sleep as an escape mechanism? Does your character take sleep aids? Self-medicate with alcohol? Does sleep feel like a waste of time?

Deviating From Eight Hours

By now, pretty much everyone knows that, on average, people spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping. Anything that time-consuming must impinge on people’s (characters’) awareness.

It turns out most people sleep about 7 hours a night, so that would be “normal.” Fewer than 6 hours a night means one is a short sleeper, and more than 8 hours a night is a long sleeper. Does it matter?

People tend to perceive short sleepers as high-energy, productive, and on top of things. Long sleepers are often perceived as lazy, or at least not hard workers. 

What is your character’s sleep duration? Is s/he happy with with it? Smug? Defensive? Self-conscious?

Sleeping longer is better for physical health.  A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology titled Sleep Duration and Survival Percentiles Across Categories of Physical Activity says sleep duration affects physical health: Those who get less than six hours of sleep are at increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and early death even if they’re active and exercise regularly.

But can one sleep too much? Not if you maintain a reasonable level of physical activity. (Inactive long sleepers also die earlier, usually from cardiovascular problems.) 

Keep this in mind when creating realistic characters.

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

Early birds tend to get up early without setting an alarm, and even on the weekend.  Mornings are the most productive times. And activity trackers indicate that early birds actually move 60-90 more minutes per day. They fade in the evening, often in bed by 10:00.

There is a middle group: Day people sleep a little later and are most effective in the afternoon.

Night owls sleep as late as possible and are up well past nightfall, into the wee hours of the morning.  Night owls tend to sit more and move less, even when researchers factored for education and health conditions—so need to make an effort to move more for health reasons! And because this pattern doesn’t fit the world at large, making appointments for doctors, etc., can be problematic. Robo-calls while still in bed are especially annoying!

Stereotypes favor early risers for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. On the other time, creative types often report that their best work hours are evening/wee hours of the mornings.

NB: sleep patterns can change naturally over the lifespan. Infants sleep almost constantly; teenagers seem to sleep only while in a classroom setting.

What is your character’s sleep rhythm? Is it felt to be a blessing, a burden, or relatively irrelevant fact of life? Does s/he struggle against the “natural” rhythm? If so, why? Does your character push the limits for staying awake and then “catch-up” later?

Napping

Some people doze off while sitting in a chair; some settle into a recliner and nap intentionally; and yet others can only nap in their own beds, often with shoes off and tight clothes loosened. 

Some take “power naps” for 15 minutes or so during the work day; others nap for an hour or more at a time.

Napping offers several benefits for healthy adults, including

  • Relaxation
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved mood
  • Extended functioning hours later
  • Improved performance, including quicker reaction time and better memory

Napping can also have negative effects, such as

  • Sleep inertia: feeling groggy and disoriented after waking up from a nap.
  • Nighttime sleep problems. 
    • Short naps generally don’t affect nighttime sleep quality.
    • People who experience insomnia or poor sleep quality at night, napping might worsen these problems. 
      • Insomniacs often have trouble napping at all because it takes longer to fall asleep than the allotted duration of the nap!

Does your character nap? Where? Why?  And is s/he okay with that?

Dreaming

Does your character claim not to dream? If so, s/he is mistaken. People team an average of 7 times a night during so-called REM sleep. These dream periods get longer as the night’s sleep progresses. Chances are, your dream denier simply doesn’t wake up within ten minutes of dreams ending.

Are dreams important to your character?  Some people mine dreams for clues to their inner lives, creative insight, and even hints of the future. Some people treasure dreams as raisers of awareness of non-conscious problems or conflicts. Some believe internal conflicts actually get solved during dreams. Some dreams are erotic and can lead to sexual release. And some people keep dream journals for later review and inspiration for creative works.

Like other dreams, nightmares often include elements of real life: anxiety, fears, failures, embarrassments, or trauma. People do not wake up happy from nightmares. Because nightmares are a disruption of the REM cycle rather than a part of it, a sleeper with nightmares wake up less refreshed than before. (Nightmares are not the same as night terrors.)

Lucid dreaming is less well-known than other sorts of dreams. According to Psychology Today, “During lucid dreaming, which most commonly occurs during late-stage REM sleep, a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within their dreams, to some extent.” Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There are communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive. Still, that doesn’t mean your character can’t be a dedicated lucid dreamer!

Research indicates that dreaming is crucial to intellectual functioning, memory consolidation, and mood regulation. A sleeper who is allowed to undergo every part of the REM cycle except dreaming will eventually develop the same problems as severe sleep deprivation, including hallucinations and strokes!

What is your character’s dream scape? Are dreams remembered? Are they amusing, irritating, or sources of unease? Does your character talk about his/her dreams? If so, to whom?

Bottom line: sleep—and everything associated with it—can make your plot richer and your character more realistic. 

A while back (March 10, 2020, to be exact) I wrote a blog Sleeping Alone and Together, about gender and personality reflected in sleep positions. 

EARLY BIRDS AND NIGHT OWLS

Folk wisdom would have us believe that we all should be early birds: they get the worm, after all, and they are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Indeed, research indicates that there are real differences between the early-to-bedders and the late-to-bedders.

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Being up and ready for the day correlates with EBs getting better grades and having a better chance of getting a good “regular” job. 

More coffee, please!

In one way, at least, early birds (EBs) have a big advantage: most social life takes place during the day, and EBs can take full advantage of that. Getting to medical appointments, grocery stores, and business breakfasts are not hardships.

In addition, at least one study found that EBs anticipate problems and try to minimize them. Being proactive in this way is linked to better job performance, greater career success, and higher earnings. They set goals and plan to meet them.

Mixing coffee with beer makes it perfect for breakfast! Thanks, Coronado Brewing!

Overall, EBs are much more likely to exercise, and as a result are less prone to health problems, everything from obesity to depression. Perhaps that’s partly because most outdoor activity takes place during the day anyway!

However, not everything is roses for EBs. For one thing, their days are all downhill. They get no “second wind” late in the day. As sleepiness pulls, an EB’s performance lags. In addition, EBs need more sleep, and if they don’t get enough, it really drags them down.  Still, it seems a small price to pay for all the good stuff I just talked about.

So why wouldn’t everyone want to be an EB? First of all, what one wants isn’t always what one gets. People are biologically predisposed to be either an EB or a Night Owl (NO). Frederick Brown (Penn State psychologist) refers to EBs as early risers and NOs as late setters and comes out strongly on the side of genetic determination. In fact, in 2003, researchers discovered a “clock “ gene. EBs were more likely to have a longer version of this Period 3 gene.

And there is a real downside to being a NO—including being more prone to a whole host of mental and physical health problems, especially depression and obesity. Not surprisingly, they tend to die sooner than EBs.

Not bedtime. We’re not tired. Definitely not… tired…

Perhaps the increased likelihood of mental health issues are a byproduct of being generally and literally out of sync with society’s rhythms.

NOs struggle with social activities. Yes, there are all night restaurants,  gyms, and movies, but if NOs’ family and friends are on a different schedule, they face the choice of pressing/stressing themselves to accommodate or suffer from self-imposed isolation and loneliness.

It sounds like being a NO is a total bummer, but not so! Research has discovered several benefits to getting up with the owls.

Changing one’s sleep pattern often requires large amounts of caffeine.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me), NOs have more sex—which could lead to being productive in non-work-related ways! 

“It’s almost midnight. Let’s order pizza!”

One’s sleep patterns and preferences are expressions of one’s circadian rhythm: this is the rhythm of one’s body processes over the course of approximately 24 hours. In fact, the word “circadian” comes from the Latin words circā (approximately) and diēs (day). All living things—even plants—have them. (If there is life on Mars or Venus, then all bets are off!)

Left to their own devices (i.e., with no external cues as to time of day), humans tend to settle into a “natural” cycle of about 25 hours within a waking/sleeping day.

Fortunately, adjusting by an hour is fairly easy.

On the issue of enduring wake/sleep rhythms, there is lots of variability. Approximately 1% are diehard EBs and another 17% are diehard NOs, with everyone else being somewhere in between. The “tweeners” have an easier time making bigger adjustments in their sleep cycles.

It’s 2am. Time for everyone to wake up because I’m hungry!

There are age-clustering effects, too. High school and college age people, regardless of bio-rhythms, tend to stay up late and sleep in. The opposite is true of the elderly.

All sorts of outside factors have major chunks of control over when we wake and sleep, regardless of preferences. Many NOs must adapt to workplace schedules, or demands due to spouse or children. Consider how one’s body’s preferences would adapt to these work schedules.

  • 9-5:00ers
  • Night shift workers
  • Swing-shift workers
  • Parents
Sleep deprivation in fire fighters can be very dangerous. They get cranky when they’re tired.

People do what they have to do, sometimes for years at a time. Not surprisingly, swing-shift workers have the hardest time of it, and the more often their shifts change, the more disruptive it is. (If one’s work shifted by an hour a day, it would be easy to handle… but I don’t know of any examples.) If one works 7-3:00 followed by 3-11:00 followed by 11-7:00 and then repeats the cycle at lengthy intervals, the adaptation is easier than random shifts and/or short intervals.

At least the ambulances are pretty comfy for a nap.

Sleepers following a swing-shift work schedule face additional mental and physical hurdles. Researchers have identified a sleep disorder specific to employees on these schedules: Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

  • Prone to chronic sleep deprivation
  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased focus
  • Impaired decision making

Many of the people whose jobs require focus, speed, high-level decision making, and operating under extreme stress also have to work on swing shift schedules.

Plus, hospitals are super creepy at night. So are power plants.
  • Power plant operators
  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics
  • Doctors and nurses
    • Emergency room staffers and residents are more likely to work night shifts and swing shifts
  • Emergency hotline operators (911)
  • Police
  • Military personnel

Whatever structures are imposed, our NO or EB tendencies endure, even into old age. Remove external structural constraints/demands and one’s true nature comes to the fore again.

Bottom line: You’ll be happier and perhaps healthier if you can shape your life to extract as many benefits as possible from your natural tendencies!

Gemma Correll understands me!