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What are 'depression naps' and are they a sign of trouble?

The technical term for a depression nap is hypersomnia, "which means that you’re sleeping too much."
/ Source: TODAY

You may have seen the memes on Twitter — gifs about falling into bed, hiding under the covers or just collapsing onto the ground for a so-called “depression nap.” The concept describes a lie-down that lets you escape the world through sleep when you’re tired, stressed, anxious or feeling down.

Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, who keeps making history with twists and turns in competition, talked about using sleep to escape depression after revealing she had coped with being sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar by trying to sleep off what happened.

“I told one of my lawyers, I said, ‘I sleep all the time, because it’s the closest thing to death,’” Biles said during a discussion for the new YouTube series, “If I Could Tell You Just One Thing.”

Dr. Natalie Azar, NBC news medical contributor, said the technical term for a depression nap is hypersomnia, "which means that you’re sleeping too much."

In fact, naps can be good for you. Recent evidence finds that one or two daytime naps a week may be linked to a lower risk of heart attack or stroke. And nap length, which can include anything from a quick, five-minute catnap to an hour or more snooze, doesn't seem to make a difference. Still, when it comes to daytime naps, there's seems to be a fine line between a healthy refresh and an indication of a problem.

Depression and sleep

Experts agree that depression is intimately connected to problems with sleep.

“Disturbance in sleep is a cardinal symptom of depression,” Myrna M. Weissman, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University, told TODAY. She noted these disturbances can take a variety of forms, including insomnia, an inability to fall asleep, a tendency to wake up during the night or a tendency to feel worse in the morning upon rising.

According to Harvard Medical School, a variety of studies indicate that between 65 to 90 percent of adult patients with major depression experience some type of sleep problem. A 2012 study published in the journal Sleep found sleep disturbances like snorting and stopping breathing were strongly associated with incidence of major depression.

A 'depression nap' may not mean you’re depressed.

Most often, clinical depression is connected to some form of insomnia, said Dr. Rochelle Zak, a sleep medicine specialist at the University of California San Francisco Sleep Disorders Center.

“Depression is less likely to result in daytime sleepiness,” Zak said. “Often, people are hyper-aroused, so they would love to nap but they can’t.”

Young people in their 20s and 30s who are experiencing increased sleepiness during the day and who are taking these so-called “depression naps” may actually be sleep-deprived rather than clinically depressed, Zak explained. They may be working long days or spending too much time on their screens at night, leading to poorer sleep quality and more stress, she said.

The 'depression nap' as an escape

What's the problem with napping? People may be using these naps as a form of escape, said Dr. Helen M. Farrell, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“Personally and professionally, I don’t like the phrase ‘depression naps’ and would deter patients from using that phrase and taking that sort of ‘nap,’” Farrell said. While naps are meant to be restorative and energizing, these types of naps actually can be an unhealthy way of dealing with your feelings, becoming a kind of defense mechanism, she said.

“It’s very important for people to be able to tolerate their feelings and practice healthy coping skills that combat depression, rather than succumbing to it,” Farrell explained.

Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed such naps could be a coping mechanism, noting they could either be a symptom of low energy or a way for people to avoid hopeless or helpless thoughts.

“It can be helpful in the short run, but recurrent dependence on naps becomes a potential mechanism of depression maintenance,” he explained.

When to seek help

When do depression naps go from Twitter joke to crucial sign that you may need to seek medical help?

“The key to a healthy nap is that it’s short, infrequent and energizing — usually referred to as ‘power naps,’” Farrell said.

When naps grow longer and start to feel draining rather than restorative, or when they cause someone to miss out on important work or life events, it may be time to seek professional attention, Farrell noted.

Also, if napping is accompanied by other symptoms of depression, like low energy, trouble concentrating, or low mood, then professional help can be extremely beneficial — and even life-saving, she said.