Saturday, July 3, 2010

Power napping, stress management, and jet lag

Many animals take naps during the day. Our ancestors probably napped during the day too. They certainly did not spend as many hours as we do under mental stress. In fact, the lives of our Paleolithic ancestors would look quite boring to a modern human. Mental stress can be seen as a modern poison. We need antidotes for that poison. Power napping seems to be one of them.


Power napping is a topic that I have done some research on, but unfortunately I do not have access to the references right now. I am posting this from Europe, where I arrived a few days ago. Thus I am labeling this post “my experience”. Hopefully I will be able to write a more research-heavy post on this topic in the near future. I am pretty sure that there is a strong connection between power napping and stress hormones. Maybe our regular and knowledgeable commenters can help me fill this gap in their comments on this post.

Surprisingly, jet lag has been only very minor this time for me. The time difference between most of Europe and Texas is about 8 hours, which makes adaptation very difficult, especially coming over to Europe. In spite of that, I slept during much of my first night here. The same happened in the following nights, even though I can feel that my body is still not fully adapted to the new time zone.

How come? I am all but sure that this is a direct result of my recent experience with power napping.

I have been practicing power napping for several months now. Usually in the middle of the afternoon, between 3 and 4 pm, I lie down for about 15 minutes in a sleeping position on a yoga mat. I use a pillow for the head. I close my eyes and try to clear my mind of all thoughts, focusing on my breathing, as in meditation. When I feel like I am about to enter deep sleep, I get up. This usually happens 15 minutes after I lie down. The sign that I am about to enter deep sleep is having incoherent thoughts, like in dreaming. Often I have muscle jerks, called hypnic jerks, which are perfectly normal. Hypnic jerks are also a sign that it is time for me to get up.

After getting up I always feel very refreshed and relaxed. My ability to do intellectual work is also significantly improved. If I make the mistake of going further, and actually entering a deep sleep stage, I get up feeling very groggy and sleepy. So the power nap has to end at around 15 minutes for me. For most people, this time ranges from 10 to 20 minutes. It seems that once one enters a deep sleep phase, it is better to then sleep for at least a few hours.

Power napping is not as easy as it sounds. If one cannot enter a state of meditation at the beginning, the onset of sleep does not happen. You have to be able to clear your mind of thoughts. Focusing on your breathing helps. Interestingly, once you become experienced at power napping, you can then induce actual sleep in almost any situation – e.g., on a flight or when you arrive in another country. That is what happened with me during this trip. Even though I have been waking up at night since I arrived in Europe, I have been managing to go right back to sleep. Previously, in other trips to Europe, I would be unable to go back to sleep after I woke up in the middle of the night.

Power napping seems to also be an effective tool for stress management. In our busy modern lives, with many daily stressors, it is common for significant mental stress to set in around 8 to 9 hours after one wakes up in the morning. For someone waking up at 7 am, this will be about 3 to 4 pm in the afternoon. Power napping, when done right, seems to be very effective at relieving that type of stress.