As a college student, I see signs of sleep deprivation everywhere: fellow students claiming to have pulled an all-nighter to study or complaining that they haven’t slept at all in three days or, most commonly, bragging about the three hour nap they took after class. I am most guilty of the third thing on this list, and I pride myself on taking long naps. After a tiring day of classes, it is so tempting to just curl up in bed and sleep for a while. But at the end of it, I often find myself waking up groggy and less energetic than when I started. In addition, napping tends to make it harder for me to fall asleep at night. So, what’s the big deal with naps, then? Do naps benefit our sleep or harm it? If there are benefits, how do we nap properly in order to obtain those benefits?
I’m here to tell you the good news: there are many benefits to be gained from taking naps. Most of the research I found detailed the positive impacts of taking naps on everything from memory to emotional stability—yes, naps can even help keep you calm. A study done in 2015 found a correlation between napping and the ability to handle frustration. In this study, researchers took 40 subjects and split them into randomized groups of “nappers” and “non-nappers.” After taking just an hour-long nap, those in the “napper” group reported feeling less impulsive and were better able to cope with feelings of frustration. So whenever you’re feeling cranky and unable to handle your negative emotions, a nap may be just the thing you need.
Improvement in memory is another benefit of napping, and one that is well documented. According to this article, multiple studies have shown the different ways that napping improves memory. In this study, participants were asked to partake in a visual test, and researchers found that those who took a 60 to 90 minute nap actually did about the same on the test as those who got a full night of sleep. This could mean that taking a nap may have the same benefits as getting a full night’s sleep before a test (However, I would not recommend sacrificing a good night’s rest before a test in favor of a nap.)
Napping improves other types of memory as well. In another study, researchers gave participants a word recall test that involved both memorizing single words as well as word pairs. Those who had taken a 90-minute nap beforehand were on par with those who didn’t nap for the single word recall, but performed much better when it came to remembering the word pairs. This study indicates that napping can help improve associative memory.
So now that we have established that naps can give us some great benefits, how do we use naps to our advantage? Like I mentioned before, I often find myself groggy and tired after a nap. This is largely due to a phenomenon known as sleep inertia. Sleep inertia is induced when taking a nap longer than around a half hour and can reduce the ability to think upon waking up. This makes the benefits of such longer naps unable to be felt until some time after the nap has ended. To prevent sleep inertia, it is wise to time your naps so that they are less than 30 minutes. This short YouTube video details how to take the perfect nap.
Overall, naps are great—they can help us feel better emotionally and perform better on tests. However, naps can also cause some unwanted side effects if not taken correctly. These side effects can include grogginess and tiredness, which are feelings that people take naps precisely to avoid. So, when it comes to napping, it is best to nap wisely.