“I’m passing the phone to someone who naps more than she studies.”
My roommate passes her phone to me, and I continue the chain of light jabs for the TikTok we’re making. Nothing offensive but, at least in my case, not a complete exaggeration of the truth either.
My habit started in high school with a quick half hour nap at 3:00 p.m. — nothing major, just a light snooze. While quarantining in 2020 and 2021, however, my rest patterns grew more extreme. I’d wake up 10 minutes before my Zoom classes started, sleep for another couple hours between classes, stay up late into the night and sleep more the next day. Ever since forming this toxic routine during the depths of the pandemic, I’ve struggled to nap for less than two hours a day.
I knew my habit of napping had grown really extreme when it became central to my reputation among my friends. If they need to get a hold of me, they call instead of text, knowing the single ping of my phone won’t be enough to rouse me. When my roommate is unable to find her cat, instead of panicking, she assumes he’s in my room, being held hostage (sorry, Bear) amid my slumber.
“You’re young; you should have more energy,” my mom said to me once, as I complained to her about my constant exhaustion. I see the signs of my abnormalities; the ideal amount of sleep for college students is at least eight hours per night. With my nap schedule during the day, I’m usually looking at six to seven a night. I agree with my mom on the basis of Yes, I need to do more to stay awake, and I wonder if my exhaustion is normal for someone my age. Right now, I’m unsure if I’m speaking nonchalantly about a serious issue or ostentatiously about a relatively common experience.
According to the internet, these deviations are not uncommon. Most college students sleep for about six to 6.9 hours per night. My habits might not be so healthy, but evidence suggests I’m not completely alone in the throws of exhaustion. In fact, my 3:00 p.m. slump is biologically proven.
To simplify the science, two factors control our sleep process: sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock. The sleep/wake cycle suggests that the longer we go without sleep, the more tired we are. Therefore, one would think we would be more tired around 9 p.m. than 3 p.m. However, our circadian biological clock, or circadian rhythm, causes spikes and dips in energy throughout the day. Circadian rhythm is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which responds to light and darkness to tell us to wake up or sleep respectively. For the average adult, energy tends to peak around 9:00 a.m. through 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. through 9:00 p.m. Our energy then falls off between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. So while the sun is still up early in the afternoon, “we experience a miniature (dip in wakeness) between 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.,” a time and concept often referred to as the afternoon slump.
The reasons behind this pattern are not completely clear, but according to lab research at Baylor University, our body clocks aren’t dependent on the 24-hour day cycle but rather function on a 12-hour cycle. Researchers found that “(12-hour rhythms) occur regularly and autonomously in the cells, and their oscillation can be synchronized by certain external stimuli.”
The slump does not begin and end like clockwork. While an innate process, circadian rhythms are also responsive to aspects of our physical environment such as light and temperature. Individual choices such as sleep patterns, diet, exercise, stress and other biological factors will also affect the flow of individuals’ circadian rhythms. For myself, a sleepy, dehydrated, popcorn-snacking woman in college, an alarm sounds in my body at 3:00 p.m., saying Sleep. Now.
I’ve played around with multiple techniques for schooing away sleep when 3:00 p.m. comes knocking. The best strategy is to get out of the house; having a class during this time, while agonizing fatigue-wise, forces me to stay alert. Otherwise, scheduling office hours or running errands are sufficient replacements. If I stay at home, I try to separate myself from my bed as much as possible; I sit outside with my laptop, a notebook, drinks and snacks. I can’t let my tea get cold or let flies land on my fruit. This activity helps me delay giving into my sleep urges. If I play my cards right, I can actually get my work done at an appropriate time and pace.
Eventually, the homework runs out, and the sky begins to grow darker. The desire to sleep plays games with my head, so I start playing games myself: The New York Times Crossword, Sudoku levels medium and hard, the Spelling Bee, Connections, Wordle and archives of the crossword and Spelling Bee. If I complete this checklist, it’s on to The Sims 4 or Minecraft. If I start a build, I won’t stop until it’s done.
I also cook, not just because it relaxes me, but also because it’s irresponsible to sleep while the stove burner is on. I clean as well — I can’t possibly relax with clothes strewn across my room. Once I’ve checked every activity on my roster, catching the clock to see that it’s gone from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., I give myself a little pat on the back. Another slump I managed to avoid.
Fighting any biological processes at play might be the fact that, in addition to a quick-paced college life, we do not live in a world built for rest. As of this year, the United States was ranked the 10th most overworked country in the world. This can be attributed to a multitude of factors, including the lack of a national parental leave benefit, lack of federal laws requiring paid sick days and minimal paid vacation days. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more than one-in-three Americansaren’t getting enough sleep.
Our sleep crisis isn’t just a result of economic and workplace pressures, but a culture phenomenon as well. Notions of the American Dream and other “rags to riches” narratives have turned the “work to live” adage into “live to work,” while other nations such as Luxembourg, Austria and Denmark boast a more balanced work-life schedule. For example, compare the idea of Spaniards pausing the work day from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. for a siesta to eat and rest, to American journalists encouraging us to “Navy SEAL nap” for eight to 12 minutes. My issue is not simply the propensity to nap; as a nation, we are unable to rest peacefully, having to claw for it between classes or shifts.
Like Daily Arts writer James Johnston does in his article, “3 p.m. on a summer afternoon,” I indulge in self-depreciation, “doing nothing for anyone, anywhere.” Perfectly said. My naps are not usually happy experiences. More often than not, I nap as an attempt to escape stress, boredom and overstimulation. Moreover, sleep doesn’t come to me as a cat nap but more like an anvil falling on my body, keeping me cemented to the mattress. Fatigue wants to root my body in a state of inertia, even if I’m trying to keep my body in motion.
As much as I try to resist my nap, I equally resist change. I scowl at well-meaning lifestyle advice rooted in the research I highlighted above. Cut out fats and carbohydrates? Avoid caffeine? I grow sour; I walk at least 20 minutes a day, usually more than 40: Is that not enough? I eat proteins and vegetables, but I also have a sweet tooth: Am I supposed to ignore it? Even when I know there are simple steps I could be taking to try and improve my health and thus sleep patterns, I find myself getting frustrated. Don’t I work hard enough?
It’s dawned on me that there exists an even easier, more pleasant option than diets, workouts or checklists of activities. When the slump hits me, why don’t I simply nap? Obviously, based on my roommates’ TikToks, sometimes I do. But when a 20-minute power nap turns into more than two hours of deep sleep, not only do I lose out on time to progress on homework or spend time with my friends, but I also often wake up just as (if not more) drowsy. I drudge through my work and fall into a restless sleep much later. The act of surrendering to a nap itself is a battle of wills, and I’m rocking a losing streak.
No personal lifestyle change will alter the fact that the American daily schedule is flawed. Imagine a work day that fluctuates in tandem with our sleep cycles or an entire ideological shift toward the idea that napping is healthy and normal. If we paid more attention to our circadian rhythms and determined our work and school lives around them, our work-private life balance would significantly improve. This idea is more or less a pipe dream, but if there’s a chance of me resting peacefully at 3:00 p.m. one day in the future, I’ll keep the idea in the back of my mind. And of course, in my dreams.
Statement Columnist Elizabeth Wolfe can be contacted at email@example.com.