Self-Care Science: Why Taking a Nap Feels so Good

One more nap could mean one less cup of coffee, and that might just be the difference between a happy you and an exhausted, depressed you.

Nap

We mostly all agree that hot tubs, massages and the like feel good, but ask anyone why and you’ll get a shrug (which is fair! That person was trying to relax, after all). Understanding what these self-care activities are doing to your body — and more importantly, why they feel so good — can actually help you reach peak relaxation, though. That’s why we’re looking at the science behind various feel-good pursuits. Today’s focus: Taking a nap.

Before anything else, I suppose I should address the elephant in the room: Sadly, napping does not always feel good and can sometimes make you feel a million times more tired than before. However, unless you happen to be one of those people who are genetically designed to be a bad napper — in which case, this article is probably a complete mystery to you — there are some simple ways to mitigate that feeling so you can actually experience the benefits of a short snooze. “With shorter naps, under 30 minutes, waking up groggy is less common,” says sleep expert Terry Cralle. “Some research also suggests that frequent nappers exhibit greater improvements in performance post-nap than people who don’t often nap.” In other words, if napping often leaves you feeling like a reanimated corpse, either you can blame your genes or you might just need a little more practice.

When done correctly, though, napping can make all your worries go away, for a whole bunch of reasons. Of course, the simple fact that naps make you less tired is a good feeling that can snowball into all kinds of other good things. “In one study, a 10-minute nap produced improvements in areas such as sleepiness, fatigue and cognitive performance,” Cralle says. “The good news is that these improvements were maintained for several hours after the nap.”

This phenomenon — that is, being more invigorated and capable of successfully navigating your daily life — can then lend itself to even more positivity as the day goes on. “A nap can turn you from a zombie struggling to make it through the day into a productive, functioning human being again in as little as 30 minutes,” Cralle emphasizes. “For me, there’s nothing worse than that ‘sleepy struggle’ in an attempt to just make it through the day.”

Not to mention, taking a nap could mean drinking less coffee, and for people who depend on caffeine a little too much, even one less cup could significantly improve their mood. “Too many of us are relying on caffeine in an attempt to power through insufficient sleep,” Cralle confirms. “However, getting some shuteye when needed makes more sense, as too much caffeine can affect sleep at night and then a vicious cycle ensues. Therefore, instead of taking a coffee break or even a smoking break, a nap can leave us more productive, alert and creative.”

Beyond simply providing more energy, though, as another study points out, napping can directly improve your mood by strengthening your ability to regulate your emotions, meaning even when something bad happens, you can deal with it without getting all flustered. “Frustration tolerance is one facet of emotion regulation,” explains study author and University of Michigan doctoral student Jennifer Goldschmied. “I suspect sleeping gives us more distance [from an emotional event] — it’s not just about the passing of time.”

It makes sense, then, why research shows that people who nap report being happier than people who stay awake throughout the day, and this applies to kids, too. “One recent study found that children who nap are happier, have fewer behavioral problems, greater self-control and do better academically,” says Cralle, which could certainly benefit not only the kids themselves, but any exhausted parents who are constantly dealing with their children misbehaving

Finally, while napping certainly helps your mind, it can make your body feel a whole lot better, too, lowering your blood pressure and ramping up your immune system, which can be especially beneficial as we enter cold and flu season. One study suggests that these benefits can be at least somewhat attributed to napping lowering your cortisol levels, which should also lessen the amount of stress you feel, since elevated levels of cortisol promote anxiety.

So rather than pushing through the day, exhausted and depressed because your coworkers take unflattering pictures of you whenever you sneak a nap on your lunch break (hey, it happens), stay true to your napping ways and remind them that you’re feeling much, much better for it. “Feeling guilty about grabbing some shuteye can negate that feel-good feeling from your nap,” Cralle says. “You shouldn’t be any more apologetic for napping than you are for grabbing a cup of coffee. The need for sleep isn’t a weakness, a luxury or an indulgence — it’s a biological need.”