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How to take a nap and wake up refreshed, not tired

Ever wake up from a nap feeling groggy and grumpy? Here's how to avoid that.

Portrait of an Exotic shorthair cat wearing a party hat

We have all felt a bit like this cat after waking up from an afternoon nap.

Annie Paddington / Getty Images

It often seems there are only two ways to wake up from a nap: intensely energized and ready to take on the world, or so groggy you wonder if you're still in the same decade. And many people, despite facing a serious afternoon slump, fight the urge to nap because they know it'll make them feel worse. 

Fortunately, you can have your nap and still take on the rest of your day like a champ: In this article, learn why you feel worse after a nap, how to beat that awful post-nap grogginess and when you should really skip the nap. 

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Why do I feel worse after taking a nap? 

That familiar groggy feeling is called "sleep inertia," and it means that your brain wants to keep sleeping and complete a full sleep cycle. Sleep inertia results from waking abruptly out of deep sleep or slow wave sleep, which is the kind of sleep you start to fall into approximately 30 minutes into snoozing. 

This is why experts recommend keeping naps to just 10 to 20 minutes, among other nap best practices. It's all about the sleep stages, which go as follows: 

  1. Non-REM (NREM) Stage 1
  2. NREM Stage 2
  3. NREM Stage 3 (deep sleep)
  4. REM Sleep

NREM Stage 1 lasts five to 10 minutes; NREM Stage 2 lasts 10 to 20 minutes; and then NREM Stage 3 sets in. During NREM Stage 3 sleep, your muscles relax more, your blood pressure and breathing rate decrease, and slow brain waves begin to emerge. 

Pulling yourself out of this very deep sleep results in the characteristic grogginess and impaired performance of sleep inertia, which can last anywhere from mere minutes to hours

Why do naps make me feel cranky?

Crankiness, or any form of a bad mood after a nap, isn't so much an aftereffect of its own, but another side effect of sleep inertia. No one enjoys being snatched out of a good snooze, and the loud beeps from an alarm interrupting deep sleep is enough to ruin anyone's mood. 

How to not feel groggy or grumpy after a nap

If you try to avoid naps at all costs because you seem to always wake up confused or angry at the whole world, you should know that you can avoid those unpleasant aftereffects. Here are four tips for waking up from all naps feeling refreshed, not drained:

1. Time your nap correctly

A good nap is all about timing. Dr. Dawn Dore-Stites, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Sleep Disorder Center at Michigan Medicine and Reverie sleep advisory board member, told CNET that the longer the nap, the more problems it typically creates. 

"The longer you sleep, the higher the chance you get into deeper stages of sleep," Dore-Stites says. "Waking from those stages can lead to the grogginess and irritability. Limiting naps to 20 minutes is key. You will often wake up feeling more refreshed."

The exception is if you have enough time to nap for an entire sleep cycle, which lasts approximately 90 to 120 minutes. However, unless you're super in-tune with your sleep cycle and can pinpoint the exact time you need to wake up, you're better waking up before you ever reach deep sleep. 

Additionally, you should try to nap as early in the afternoon as possible. Napping close to your bedtime can confuse your body and make you feel groggy for the remainder of the evening, especially if daylight is already waning when you wake up from your nap. 

2. Get out of bed right when you wake up

It can be super tempting to hit snooze or spend a few minutes scrolling on your cell phone, but fight the urge. Remaining in bed in that sort of half-asleep, super drowsy state can make post-nap grogginess more intense or extend for a longer period of time. 

And when you do get out of bed, expose yourself to natural daylight by opening curtains or blinds to make sure your body knows it isn't bedtime and there are still things to be done. 

3. Do something energizing after your nap

If natural daylight isn't enough to spark your system, try one of these tactics for a stronger wake-up call: 

  • Wash your face or splash it with cold water
  • Drink a glass of water
  • Eat a healthy snack or meal
  • Do some light stretching
  • Go for a short walk
  • Listen to music 

Research shows that washing your face and getting some sunlight can combat post-nap grogginess, as can listening to music. Light exercise, such as stretching and walking, and intense workouts can both boost energy and mood, which can fend off afternoon slumps.  

4. Take a coffee nap

Yep, that's a thing. A "coffee nap" refers to guzzling some caffeine right before your nap. If everything works out, you'll wake up feeling extra refreshed and energized because the effects of caffeine peak around 30-60 minutes after consumption, which is shortly after you should wake up from a nap.

If you drink coffee too long before you plan to nap, however, you risk losing your opportunity for a nap if the caffeine sets in and keeps you awake. So like tip number one, coffee naps come down to the timing. 

When to nap and when to skip it

Dore-Stites says that napping isn't always the answer, even if you feel like you can't keep your eyes open in the afternoon. 

If you are actually sleep-deprived at night, a short nap may help you sustain your energy through the day, Dore-Stites says. But on the other hand, taking naps when you aren't sleep-deprived can affect your ability to fall asleep, leading to shorter sleep duration at night. 

"Overall, it is better to have one good long period of sleep at night than sleeping in 'pockets' through the day and night," Dore-Stites told CNET.  "Such sleep patterns often lead to more feelings of fatigue and low energy." 

If you have insomnia or you struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep most nights, you may want to avoid naps for the most part. If you generally sleep well at night, Dore-Stites says it's best to only nap when you really need it, or you might end up in a vicious cycle of unusual sleep cycles and sleep inertia, and thus the grogginess you're trying to avoid. 

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