IX. The Art of the Nap

I once had a husband who was a world class napper. After mowing the lawn or reading a book, he’d head for the living room couch and be asleep before his head hit the pillow. Steady breathing and soft snoring made it clear that he was out, really out. I’d sit and marvel, wishing I could do that. Then fifteen to twenty minutes later, as though an alarm had gone off in his head, he’d open his eyes and within a minute be on his feet and out the door.

Novice napper that I am, I was excited to begin this new adventure now that I’d quit working. My move to a new town and retirement left me with old issues resolved and a new life beginning. At first, I found myself needing to lie down as often as three times a day; this overwhelming tiredness descended upon me and I just had to take a break.

Was I finally really relaxing, no longer having to worry about job-related projects or deadlines? Perhaps I was finally resolving old unfinished issues. But I couldn’t nap. As soon as I was in a prone position, I was wide awake.I often sat by my window wondering what was going on, why was napping harder than I’d imagined? I had to have answers. What did we do before Google? And that’s where I found some interesting facts and insights about napping.

More than 85% of mammals are what’s called “polyphasic” sleepers; that means they sleep for short periods throughout the day and night. Humans are part of a mammal minority who are “monophasic” sleepers, meaning that our days are divided into two distinct periods, one for sleep and one for wakefulness.

As a nation, the United States is becoming more and more sleep deprived; while naps can’s substitute for poor quality nighttime sleep, a short 20-30 minute nap can help to improve mood, alertness and performance. If you’re a napper, you’re in good company: Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and George W. Bush were all known to value an afternoon nap.

Hum. Interesting that the list contains only men. Wonder what that means. But a more refined Google search revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt was the only woman included in this revered company. No wonder she’s one of my hero’s.

Further Google research led me to the types of naps and the benefits and perils of this activity. There are planned naps, taken before you actually get sleepy, a good idea for times when you know you’ll be up later than usual. Emergency napping is when you’re suddenly very tired and can’t continue whatever you’re doing; this can happen when driving fatigue or repetitive use of heavy machinery makes you suddenly drowsy. Then there’s habitual napping, taken at the same time each day. Young children and older adults are known to take a short nap after lunch and napping is an important facet of day-to-day life in many cultures.

Benefits of naps include the improvement of short term alertness and performance without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with nighttime sleep. But of course, the benefits are offset by their negative effects. For example, some people have trouble sleeping any place other than their own bed or simply have trouble sleeping in the daytime. They’ll probably never be good nappers.

Naps can lead to sleep inertia, defined as the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that comes with waking from a deep sleep. One study indicated that napping is associated with increased risk of heart failure in people already at risk. And finally, while napping is a beneficial way to relieve tiredness, it still has stigmas associated with laziness.

My general sleep patterns had gone all awry since no longer having to get up at the crack of dawn for work. Still, I’d be awake at 5:30am on the dot. The internal sleep clock and the circadian rhythms were noted on Google. For me, napping during the day often prevented a good night’s sleep. I’d find myself wide awake and frustrated at 1:00am.

After a time of unsettled sleep and daytime tiredness, I finally made peace with this as well as other adjustments to the unstructured world of retirement. I now accept that it no longer matters when I get my sleep. A fond memory of sleeping until noon while a college student has been relegated to the annals of the past as something I’ll never be able to do again.

As the sleep clinics recommend, when I awaken at odd hours, I get up and watch TV or read until I get tired. I found that if I stay up until midnight, I sleep straight through until 6:30am. And I do that sometimes. But if I’m so tried I can’t keep my eyes open at 9:00pm, I go to bed knowing I’ll be up at 2:00am. When this happens, I simply sigh and get busy until I’m tired and return to bed. Why fight it!

With these up and down sleep patterns, I feel like I’m napping day and night. I’ve joined the majority of mammals as a polyphasic sleeper; I always have a reading or writing project handy for those late night sojourns and early morning burst of energy. I’ve come to accept this new-found freedom in retirement; I now am more than satisfied to mix up time to my best advantage and enjoy. That’s the art of the nap.

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