Many people with ME/CFS and similar illnesses like Fibromyalgia and Lyme Disease and Long Covid, struggle with the issue of whether or not to it’s OK to take a nap. Sleep can be a real problem with these illnesses. It can be hard to get to sleep, sleep can be easily disturbed with lots of wake ups, and it rarely results in feeling refreshed when you wake up in the morning. The big concern is that napping will make it even more difficult to sleep at night.
If you have concerns about night-time sleep and your goal is to give yourself the best possible chance of a more refreshing night’s sleep, I’d like to share what I’ve learned both from my own experience and my work with many clients who have struggled with sleep.
But let me start with a couple of exceptions: if you’re night-time sleep is good and you feel you need a daytime nap, don’t even worry about it. Do what feels right in the moment! The same goes if you’re in an acute phase of the illness rather than a chronic one.
The most important thing to understand
The big issue with sleep with these illness results from overactive sympathetic nervous system activity. Simply put, our arousal is so high that even when it dips at night it doesn’t dip low enough for our sleep cycle to function effectively. To get the best possible sleep we want to work on calming our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and engaging our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
One thing we often don’t consider, is how much we contribute to SNS arousal by pushing ourselves. When we haven’t got enough energy to do what we’re trying to do, our bodies response is to use the sympathetic nervous system to ready more resources for action. When we’re pushing past our energy limit, we’re effectively engaging the fight or flight to help us get together the energy we need.
It might seem intuitive to avoid napping during the day to sleep better at night, but if not napping results in you having to push yourself, it’s actually going to make things worse. Over time I’ve come to realise that the simplest guidance for napping is:
Nap, if not napping means you’ll have to push
When the goal is to keep SNS activity down, a quick nap can help us pace our day well and stay relaxed.
Keep naps short
A key to napping in the day when you have problems sleeping at night is to keep naps short, longer naps may well add to problems with night-time sleep, especially if they become a regular thing.
I’ve found 40 minutes to be optimum. The main thing is to get to the state when your body fully lets go. The aim is to relax enough to drop off, rather than to be in the state of sleep for any length of time.
A common misconception
I’ve found that some people worry that their busy mind and a sense of agitation in the evening is a sign that they haven’t done enough to tire themselves out. Pre-illness logic tell them that they need to be tired if they want to sleep well. It’s an easy mistake to make. However, if you find your mind getting more active as the day goes on, it’s most likely that your sympathetic nervous system is getting more and more active the more you struggle with not enough energy. The answer to this isn’t to use your brain until you’re tired, you’ll just be engaging more and more adrenalin which will eventually lead to a crash. The answer is to pace yourself better so that you don’t have to call on your SNS to ready more resources. Taking a nap during the day could be a great preventative measure for this over-busy mind and sense of agitation.
Trying to relax when you’re hyper-alert can be really frustrating so if you do find yourself overstimulated in the evening, find a single pointed focused calming distraction, something to engage your mind gently while your fight of flight response calms down, and then use a breathing, relaxation or meditation technique afterwards.
The next best thing that you can do for your sleep is get really good at illness management. If you don’t run low on energy, you’ll have less of a need to engage the SNS. Pacing well is sleep’s friend and a short daytime nap may well play a part in that.
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