Yes, You Should Definitely Take a Nap After Therapy
Therapy, as important as it is for mental health, can be straight-up tiring — so we totally don't blame you if you feel like spending the rest of the day under the covers after a session. While recovering from an emotional hangover is reason enough to hunker down in bed, there are a few other good (even scientific) reasons you should consider a post-therapy power nap.
If you've ever dealt with anxiety or depression, you've probably heard that sleep is an important part of managing your worries or low mood. Research suggests sleep deprivation can exacerbate stress in general and that sleep-deprived people are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders — so it makes sense that better sleep quality can affect your mood.
Now, lifestyle tweaks like sleeping more aren't usually a cure-all for managing stress and mental illness. Whether you're navigating tough circumstances or you've been diagnosed with clinical anxiety or depression, seeing a psychotherapist is an evidence-based method for coping with difficulties and boosting your mood. But sleep, it turns out, may play an interesting part in equipping your brain to incorporate all the important lessons you gleaned in your last therapy session.
One reason post-therapy sleep could help? Experts think it could promote treatment adherence, or whether or not you apply what you've learned in therapy to your daily life. One 2017 study from the University of California, Berkeley found a person's quality of sleep the night before and after a cognitive-behavioral therapy session for insomnia can promote better treatment outcomes. In the study, the people who slept the most between sessions understood their treatment better, suggesting more sleep helps people learn and adhere to their treatment plans.
According to Richard Lane, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Arizona and author of Neuroscience of Enduring Change: Implications for Psychotherapy, prioritizing shut-eye could also be a crucial part of growth because therapy and sleep have an important trait in common: they both involve an important process called memory reconsolidation.
All of your thoughts and feelings are based, at least in part, on your memories. When you work through a negative thought process or emotion with a therapist, you can actually change those memories to realign with reality — which Dr. Lane says is called memory reconsolidation. "The theory is that whenever a memory is recalled, it's in a labile or flexible state, so it can be updated or changed," Dr. Lane says. "You can have a corrective emotional experience, so the meaning of the memory is updated and modified."
It sounds more complicated than it actually is. Say you go to therapy and talk about a childhood memory that makes you feel insecure with your partner or at work. When your therapist helps you correct your thinking about that situation, your brain can form a new memory that can replace the old one and, in turn, feel more confident about your worth. Any type of psychotherapy can reconsolidate memories, Dr. Lane says: "The key is to juxtapose the old learning with the new and updated learning." In other words, as long as your therapist is helping you learn new things that "overwrite" old thoughts and beliefs, your memories — and in turn, your emotions — can change.
So, where does sleep come in? Well, it's also thought that memory reconsolidation happens during sleep. "Different kinds of memories seem to get consolidated during different portions of the sleep cycle, but REM, when most dreaming occurs, is when evidence suggests emotional memories are updated," says Dr. Lane.
While there's no hard evidence (yet) about when you should get that extra sleep after therapy, Dr. Lane theorizes taking a nap within a few hours of your session will give you the best bang for your buck, because your memories are most flexible for up to six hours after initially recalling them.
But this is also where it gets a little murky: A short, 20-30 minute post-therapy nap probably isn't enough to get into REM sleep (unless you have clinical depression, in which case you might get to REM sleep faster than other people). On the other hand, a longer post-therapy nap with REM sleep — you know, the kind that makes you feel like a zombie afterward — could mess with your night-time sleep (which would be counterproductive, since sleep deprivation can make you feel worse).
What's important, Dr. Lane, emphasizes, is understanding that what you do after your therapy session can directly affect what you get out of it — and that physically or emotionally arousing experiences, like an intense workout, can make things worse by "tagging" that memory as intense. "We don't think about what we do after a session, but what happens could influence the memory updating process," he says.
There aren't any empirical studies that confirm the connection between memory reconsolidation, sleep, and psychotherapy. But Dr. Lane says he hopes researchers study it more in the future — and that it can't hurt to be mindful of post-therapy activities and even prioritizing sleep after seeing your therapist. "Try taking a nap after a good psychotherapy session and see if it helps," Dr. Lane says.