A quick nap is usually one of the best ways to shake off a bit of tiredness during a long day. But sometimes we can wake up feeling even worse than before.
So what’s going wrong?
In this article, I’ll explore into all the different reasons why you might be feeling tired after a nap. Let’s dive right in.
1 – You’re Over Doing Your Naps
It’s (finally) becoming common knowledge that we tend to sleep in cycles. Lasting approximately 90 minutes, these cycles consist of various sleep stages that go deeper and deeper – the deepest being REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
Whenever we sleep or nap, we want to wake up when we’re in one of the lighter stages. Being awoken when you’re deep into REM sleep is what can make you feel like a zombie. Your brain’s basically pissed off because it was right in the good bit and you woke it up!
Basically, you want to be aiming to nap for one of three timings:
- 20 minutes. This is the best time to aim for if you’re wanting a quick ‘power nap’. It’s enough to let your brain recover and feel some real benefit. While you may want to keep sleeping, waking up from a 20 minute nap shouldn’t make you feel more groggy or tired than before.
- 40-45 minutes. This is the maximum for a ‘short’ nap. At this point you should catch yourself before any of the deepest sleep happens, while still enjoying a significant amount of sleep.
- 90 minutes. For those in need of serious catch up, aim to get a full 90 minute sleep cycle. This should let you a huge boost to your day, without the pain of waking up halfway through the deepest part.
Problems arise when people get woken up sometime between the 50-80 minute mark (or beyond the 90 minute mark) which jars them out of a deep sleep cycle.
2 – You’re Napping Too Late
Say you’re super tired, but you have an important test or meeting at 2pm. Luckily, you’re going to have time for a quick 20 minute nap at some point in the day. When’s the best time to take it?
Surely it’s at 1pm, right? Just before the test or meeting?
Surprisingly, this is possibly the worst time to nap.
The effects of tiredness are exponential. In other words, if you compare someone who hasn’t slept in 48 hours compared to someone who hasn’t slept in 24 hours, the person who has stayed up longer will be MORE than 2x as affected. The longer you stay up, the more quickly your brain and body deteriorate.
By timing naps early, we help to prevent this deterioration early. This will keep you better able to handle an event than if you had napped right before it.
Here’s what I mean in graph form. The three different lines represent your (approximate) fatigue as the day goes on. Assuming we start fatiguing around noon.
Don’t believe me? Well would you believe the FAA?
Thanks to sleep science, it’s become standard practice to recommend naps to pilots during long flights. Naps were quickly proven to be massively beneficial during super long shifts.
What’s interesting is the timing of the naps. Pilots are advised to take a nap early on in the long haul flight, to maximize their performance at the end of the flight.
Everyday naps are the exact same way. The earlier in the day you take them, the more effective they’ll be.
Not Getting Your Conditions Right
Unless you’re totally exhausted, drifting off for a nap is the same as drifting off to sleep. Except you’re doing it in the middle of the day. The sun’s up, the world’s full of noise, and the temperature’s higher. All are the opposite of what we need for good sleep.
If you’re trying to nap in bad conditions – especially for periods of 45 minutes of longer – then bad sleep environments may be the cause of your after-nap tiredness.
Where possible, try to get as close as possible to the sleep trifecta:
- Hard to achieve in the middle of the day, but quickly solvable with a cheap eye mask.
- As above, with good ear plugs as the solution. Note: I mean GOOD ear plugs. Not the crappy foam kind. Getting proper plugs will change your life – see other articles on this site for recommendations.
- This can be a tricky one. Our body’s slip into sleep much easier when we’re in a cool environment (thought to simulate the coolness of night). Where possible, try to find a bed or couch within a cooler room to use.
Not Doing It Regularly
Having a once-in-a-blue-moon type of nap can be great when you really need one.
But for the most benefit, consider incorporating a nap into your daily routine. Once you’ve done it for a couple of weeks, you’ll find that you’ll fall asleep almost instantly – and your body will be primed to wake up back up again afterwards.
That sounds lazy! Who’s got time to nap every day?
Well, let me answer that with one fact. People who nap regularly live some of the healthiest, happiest lives on the planet. While modern society has sped up life for most of us, some Mediterranean islands still work on ‘siesta time’. All businesses still shut down during mid-day for everyone to rest and nap, then open up again later (think 4pm-9pm).
These cultures are almost always found to live the longest, on average, in the world. Even compared to cities with the best hospitals and medicines. Why? Because naps (and sleep) are just so good for you.
Sadly, a study showed that this extended lifespan was lost when one of these islands switched to work according to normal society.
So let me rephrase that question. Who’s not got time to nap every day?
Not Waking Up Properly
If by ‘nap’ you mean ‘lay down on the couch with your
eyes closed’ and wonder why it’s hard to get back up, then we need to talk.
As well as setting the time to nap, you should make sure you wake up from one properly, too. Set an alarm (even a gentle one) and place it away from where you’re sleeping.
That way when it’s time to wake up – you actually need to get up!
From there it’s easier to stretch, drink some water (hint: have a glass handy), and get mentally ready to jump back into the day. All of this helps to kickstart you back into being productive and moving again.
Simply lying on the couch, especially if you don’t have an end time, will make it a willpower battle to get back up again. One that’s very hard to win. Especially if you’re tired.
Having Bad Sleep Health
Don’t worry – I’m not meaning that you need to eat fruit as you sleep. I’m talking about the rest of your sleep schedule.
As with almost any question on this topic, the bottom line will always include your own sleep schedule. If you’re not getting good quality, regular, healthy sleep then basically every other aspect of your life will suffer.
This may be the real reason why you still feel horrible after naps. Because your body just isn’t getting the chance to recover fully at night.
This may sound scary, but it’s also positive. Sleep is the best cure for almost every problem related to tiredness or grogginess. You can replace feeling knackered with feeling positive, energetic, and optimistic simply by laying in bed and doing nothing. It’s pretty amazing!
If you’re looking to sleep better, make sure to check out some of our other guides on the topic.
Naps can be amazing at refreshing us and clearing away tiredness (when done right).
But this can be a disadvantage, too.
If you can’t afford to nap until later in the day, consider holding off entirely. Late naps can disrupt our sleeping schedule, making us feel more awake in the evening and prevent us from getting a full night of sleep.
Leading to – you guessed it – feeling even more tired the next day.
Hint: this is actually a widespread challenge for senior people. Nodding off in the early evening can remove a lot of ‘sleep pressure’ which normally makes us sleepy at night. Combined with circadian rhythms getting earlier as we age and evening naps play a role in aggravating insomnia in the eldery (which then comes with other dangerous long term effects)
Waking up tired from a nap sucks.
It’s like if you were to put on sunglasses only to find the sun hurting your eyes more.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to work!”
I hope this quick guide has given you some ideas on how to get the most out of your naps. A nap can make you day so much better, so I hope I’ve helped get you one step closer to doing that for yourself.
Do you have any tips to help others nap better? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Thanks for reading, and sleep well!