The Benefits and Joys of Taking a Mid-day Siesta

Donald NorfolkMost animals, when left to their own devices, take their sleep at irregular intervals throughout the day. When they’re tired they snooze, waking up feeling refreshed and reinvigorated. Taking regular periods of rest like this helps prevent the build of tension and fatigue. Nowadays it’s often difficult for city workers to take these breaks. Their major health hazard is not that they work too hard, but that they take too little time off for spells of relaxation and repose. Rest pauses and cat naps, far from being periods of idleness, are in fact times of active bodily re-creation. Even the toughest soldiers will show signs of battle-fatigue if they’re not given regular spells of Rest and Recreation.

Our Neanderthal forebears suffered stress which was often more intense than ours, but invariably short lived. When they left their caves on their way to work they might come face to face, not with a friendly neighbour, but with a sabre-toothed tiger.. Either they clubbed the beast to death, beat a hasty retreat to the safety of their caverns, or died in the bloody confrontation. Whatever the outcome, the conflict was quickly over. This doesn’t apply today, when workers often face months of unremitting stress. To cope with these pressures with health intact, it’s vital to intersperse the day with regular periods of R & R, when we can step back from the strife just long enough to recharge our batteries.

History is replete with examples of eminent people who’ve adopted this practice. They were able to withstand enormous pressures without obvious damage to their mental well-being, largely because they had the ability to sleep well and take regular rest pauses. Whenever Talleyrand, the great French statesman, felt that the pressure of his day’s work was becoming excessive he’d take a few winks of sleep on his bed, telling his staff that he was ‘going into conference’. When meetings at the White House reached an impasse, President Kennedy would call for a break, and while others consoled themselves with a cup of coffee or quick cigarette, he would rest his head on his desk and snooze. The Duke of Wellington was another inveterate cat-napper. He was discovered during the height of the battle of Waterloo sleeping on the ground with a newspaper draped across his face to shield his eyes from the gunpowder flashes.

If you get the chance, make a habit of taking a post-prandial nap, even if it lasts no more than a few minutes and has to be taken sitting in a chair.  Tests on university students show that people who take these micro-siestas improve their mood and reduce their feelings of anxiety and tension. Similar benefits can be gained by taking brief rest breaks which involve no loss of consciousness. These regular recovery breaks should be regarded as biological necessities rather than idle luxuries, for without them there’s a very strong chance that today’s flat-out workers will end up as tomorrow’s flat-out

hospital patients. Some major corporations now recognise this need, and equip their executive office suites with reclining catnap chairs. They recognize that when senior decision makers are fatigued, they are at risk of making costly mistakes and failing to spot lucrative business opportunities.

For children, and people in retirement, the siesta can easily be made a regular part of their daily routine.  My wife and I spend a large part of the year in the Canaries, fondly and rightly known as ‘the favoured isles’. Here we follow the Spanish custom of taking a siesta which lasts from noon to Thursday afternoon.

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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