The Power of a Nap for Students
I have always been a great napper. Falling asleep for 10 minutes and waking up good to go has been a life skill that has served me well since childhood.
My children became familiar with me announcing that I was ‘just going to go to sleep for 10 minutes’ before we set off on a car journey. A quick power nap left me refreshed and safe to drive. As far as I know they behaved themselves whilst I slept!
I can remember being woken up at the end of a yoga session by whispers from the other participants – ‘shhh – leave her to sleep!’ Who are they talking about? Oh, it’s me! That was in the midst of my A Levels.
Which brings me to the point of this article.
I’ve heard a lot of stories recently about the stress experienced by students who are in the full throes of exam season.
Now, I get it. Exams ARE stressful. At this point in your life, they seem to be the be all and end all. Nothing else matters. You have worked hard to get this far, and to quote from NASA – Failure is Not an Option.
Couple this with the decisions that need to be made about the future – University or not, gap year, apprenticeship – and it can all seem too much.
And to cap it all, there is an additional perceived pressure as a result of COVID and lockdown.
What not to do
Ask a handful of students about exam strategy and you hear ‘go hard’ ‘pull an all nighter’ ‘drink Red Bull’ to stay awake’
Breaks are seen as failure, and sleeping is cheating!!
Please read on – the science tells us otherwise.
Sleep and exercise for learning
When we sleep, information and thoughts are consolidated and organised. This means that it is easier to access relevant information and make better connections between facts. There is an interesting TED Talk about this – link in the sidebar.
Interestingly, this has a good effect not just on learning, but also on social interactions and decision making, so we tend to make better choices ( nutrition and exercise improves, use of addictive substances decreases, with better sleep)
Studies show that short naps are extremely effective at consolidating knowledge. When these power naps are coupled with the type of exercise that raises your heart rate, the effect is increased even further.
Teenagers and body clocks
It’s a well recognised fact that teenagers operate on a different circadian rhythm than adults. It’s not really known why, but it could have something to do with the ancestral need for a secure night watch for a group or community!
What this means in practice is that teens often CAN’T sleep before midnight, or wake up at 7am, which proves problematic for a school day that starts at 8.45.
The optimum number of hours sleep for someone aged 16-19 is 8-10. If you are required to get out of bed at 7am, you would need to be asleep by 9pm to achieve this, and any teenager or parent of a teenager knows that this is a very unlikely scenario!
Studies show that performance varies over the day, depending on the circadian rhythm, which can vary between individuals. A power nap can help offset the deficit and create more focus and energy.
So what can you do?
Be aware of your own circadian rhythm – get to know your individual sleep cycle. Notice when in the day you feel sleepy, and when you feel most awake, so that you can take full advantage of those times.
- If your sleep cycle is so far to the right (ie, not falling asleep until after midnight) that it means you have no chance of getting 8 hours of sleep, try these tips to adjust it gently –
- As soon as you wake up in the morning, go outside into the daylight for 15-20 minutes. Taking some heart-rate-raising exercise at the same time is even better. This kickstarts your body clock, letting it know that it’s daytime and preparing you for sleep at the right time in the evening.
- An hour or so before your ideal bedtime, darken the room and switch off all electronic devices. Darkness helps with the production of melatonin, which helps you feel sleepy.
- Take a strategic power nap
Definition of a Nap
A nap is a short sleep of no more than 20 minutes.
A power nap should be complete before 4pm
If you are not a natural napper, it can take a bit of practice to get a power nap right. A good nap will leave you feeling brighter, refreshed and ready for the next task. A nap isn’t a substitute for good nighttime sleep, but it is a really great way to reset and refresh so that you can keep going for a bit longer, and still feel sleepy at bedtime, providing you follow the rules!
It’s powerful stuff.
How do I actually DO a power nap?
- Notice when you feel sleepy – yawning, lack of focus, restless legs are all good signs.
- Switch everything off and find a quiet spot
- Set an alarm for 20 minutes
- Lie down or sit with your head supported
- Make sure you are warm and comfortable
- Take a couple of deep breaths and exhale fully. With each exhale, let go of muscle tension and sink deeply into your chair or bed.
- Close your eyes
- When you wake up with your alarm, stretch and if possible go outside for a few minutes. Breathe deeply.
A useful tip can be to have a cup of coffee or tea just before you nap. A ‘coffee nap’ means that the caffeine kicks in just as your power nap ends – even more clarity! Don’t do this if your nap is after 2 o’clock in the afternoon though, as it’s likely to prevent you from sleeping at bedtime.
Yes, good nutrition, regular exercise and good social interaction are all associated with good mental health and shouldn’t stop at exam time.
Instead, cut out the stuff that doesn’t help, like social media and television. They’ll still be there when the exams are over :)
Don’t Stress, Do Your Best. Forget the Rest
Sally, the Queen of the Power Nap