Can’t Sleep? Try ‘Quiet Wakefulness’ Instead

Stop trying so hard to nap. Resting could have similar benefits.

When professional sports organizations are looking to build a nap room for players, one of the first things that sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., tells them is: Don’t call it that.

“We try to get teams to call these rooms something that doesn’t have ‘sleep’ or ‘nap’ in the title — the ‘restoration room’ or the ‘regeneration room,’ for example,” explains Winter, who consults with the MLB, NHL, and NBA.

The reason: To take away that implied, it’s-time-to-sleep pressure where your experience is considered successful if you sleep and a failure if you don’t.

The other reason: It introduces the idea of a powerful resting activity called “quiet wakefulness,” which is gaining traction among sleep doctors and busy-but-health-conscious circles.

What exactly is quiet wakefulness?

In short, it’s simply resting with your eyes closed. It’s compelling, in part, because it completely eliminates the stress surrounding sleep — particularly that I can’t fall asleep right now so my health is going to fall apart feeling that keeps you awake.

Stress and naps are a common yet unfortunate pairing, Dr. Winter explains. Many people can work themselves up so much about falling asleep that they struggle to actually do it.

“But while you might not be able to fully control exactly when you fall asleep, you can control when you rest — and that’s one of quiet wakefulness’ biggest benefits.”

Of course, that’s normal. “Most people don’t have complete control over their sleep,” Dr. Winter acknowledges. It would be strange, he says, to meet somebody who says, I have never had any trouble sleeping whatsoever. Having occasional sleep problems is to be expected.

But while you might not be able to fully control exactly when you fall asleep, you can control when you rest — and that’s one of quiet wakefulness’ biggest benefits.

The boons of rest are bigger than executing control over your time. The National Sleep Foundation notes that quiet wakefulness can give brain cells, muscles, and organs a break, reducing stress and improving mood, alertness, creativity, and more.

Some studies even suggest a slight drop in reaction time after a nap versus after a rest period because of the sleep inertia (a.k.a. grogginess after waking up) that sleep itself, but not rest, can cause.

During quiet wakefulness, when the brain is not actively engaged in responding to the outside world, some of the brain electrical activity is similar to what you’d see during sleep, explains Dr. Ritchie Edward Brown, a research health scientist at VA Boston Healthcare System and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies brain physiology and the sleep-wake cycle.

“Once you know that you can feel more rested whether you sleep or not, that feel-good feeling can feed off of itself.”

Research also suggests that there may be similar benefits between sleep and rest in terms of how you process information you’ve been exposed to or how you try to find solutions to problems.

One Cell Reports study of rats found that during quiet wakefulness, rats replayed and contextualized past events in order to inform their future rat choices.

How do scientists coerce a rat into quiet wakefulness, you may ask? They don’t. Quiet wakefulness in rats means they are sitting or lying in one place, grooming themselves, or just looking around, which is something the animals do naturally.

Scientists just look at the electrical brain activity when they are in this state compared to when the rats are active and running around.

Another small study out of the University of California, San Diego found that people who napped and those who simply rested performed the same on a visual test where they had to find a “T” image on a screen, suggesting that for some cognitive tasks, the benefits of resting are equal to those of actually sleeping.

Ultimately, though, resting quietly with your eyes closed can leave you feeling surprisingly refreshed, says Dr. Winter. And that can help you seek out more quiet moments. “Once you know that you can feel more rested whether you sleep or not, that feel-good feeling can feed off of itself,” he says.

Sleep still reigns

Quiet wakefulness has its weaknesses. For one, it’s unlikely that quiet wakefulness is close to actual sleep in terms of its true restorative benefits, says Brown.

“If this was true, then there wouldn’t be such a strong drive to sleep when we stay awake for a long time and sleep deprivation wouldn’t be so harmful.”

Anyone who’s had a baby, worked an overnight shift, or simply pulled an all-nighter knows all too well the emotional and physical tolls that come with little to no actual shuteye.

What’s more, the brain uses about 40% less energy during sleep versus when you’re awake, and levels of wakefulness-promoting neurotransmitters such as histamine and norepinephrine are higher during quiet wakefulness than sleep. “There is greatly enhanced clearance of toxic proteins during sleep compared to wakefulness,” says Brown.

In short, deep stages of sleep are key for helping you process emotions, remember new information, and repair cells (basically everything you need to keep functioning like a high-functioning adult).

During these stages, the brain produces slow brain waves called delta waves, which are only seen during sleep, says Dr. Winter. Ensuring that you’re getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night is key.

But in the midst of our busy schedules and stressed out lives, quiet wakefulness can infuse much-needed moments of calm and provide some health benefits, to boot. If you want to give it a try, consider these two jumping-off points.

1. Learn to meditate deeply

You can take being relaxed and quiet to another level through meditation. Some early studies that monitored people’s electrical brain activity during deep meditation suggested that people were able to reach a near–sleep-like state while awake but meditating.

But the two aren’t exactly equal. During meditation, your brain is likely not creating delta waves but alpha waves — a type of brain wave linked with relaxation, an uptick in creativity, a decrease in depressive symptoms, and, as shown in research on Tibetan Buddhist monks, an increase in long-lasting brain function.

Meditation also leads to an increase in beta waves (linked with focus) and gamma waves (linked with processing information from different brain areas). Hone your meditation skills with one of many apps (Headspace or Calm, for example) or by taking an in-person class.

2. Change the way you talk and think about sleep

Just as Dr. Winter advises his sports team clients, you should change the way you talk about sleep.

Instead of putting your child down for a nap, put them down for “quiet time.” Instead of taking a nap yourself, close your eyes, turn the lights out, set an alarm for 20 minutes, and just rest.

Simply enjoying being awake in bed has restorative benefits. “If you truly think that either you’re going to get into bed and fall asleep or be awake and that’s fine then, either way, it’s a win,” Dr. Winter says. “This kind of transforms the act of sleeping in general.”

Plus, dropping the stress surrounding falling asleep can actually help you fall asleep in the first place; it’s usually Dr. Winter’s go-to tip for overcoming sleep issues such as insomnia.

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