How My Therapist Taught Me to Use “Thinking Naps” to Ease My Anxiety and Boost Productivity

published Jul 20, 2022
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Before I started writing this, I took a nap. I had just finished assessing my front porch to see how I could hang a porch swing (my setup isn’t straightforward), and I needed a brain break before switching tasks.

My go-to intermission is a thinking nap.

Years ago, my therapist told me about hypnagogia, which is the state between being awake and asleep when you have lucid dreams. It’s a time when your subconscious starts to take over. So thoughts can get weird, as dreams tend to do. But you are also cognizant enough to have some control of your dreams.

“A simple definition of lucid dreaming is that in the midst of a dream, you are aware that you are dreaming,” explains Edie Weinstein, a social worker who uses lucid dreaming with her clients and herself.

The content of the dream generally has to do with events that occurred in your day or something that was on your mind, Weinstein says. Spending time in the state is linked to increased creativity and problem solving. Like any mindfulness tool, though, it’s not for everyone. Talk to your health care provider if you’re unsure.

I started lucid dreaming strategically. As a writer, sometimes I struggle to find the right words to express a thought. Rather than stare at a flashing cursor on my screen, I find it helps to either go for a walk or close my eyes and rest my brain. (By the way, I’m solidly on team couch for my naps.)

For me, it’s important to give myself distraction-free space to process and explore. I don’t always solve the problem at hand when I take a break, but sometimes I’m surprised with inspiration for new article ideas or a solution to a different problem altogether.

How to Get into a Lucid Dream

When prepping for lucid dreaming, Weinstein recommends telling yourself something like, “I’m going to remember my dreams and take an active role in them.” It takes some practice to find yourself in a lucid dream. Being aware of your dream state might also feel uncomfortable at first.

“In the midst of the dream, if the dreamer is in a frightening or challenging situation, they can remind themselves, ‘Wake up! You’re dreaming’,” Weinstein says. “On the other hand, if the dreamer is experiencing something pleasurable, they can remind themselves to stay in the dream and enhance the feelings.”

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Thinking Naps Help Me with Anxiety

Weinstein says she finds lucid dreaming can help people with feelings of anxiety or depression.

“When engaging in lucid dreaming, the dreamer is behind the virtual wheel and can steer it where they want it to go,” Weinstein explains. “I tell them it is good practice for their waking hours.”

I also use lucid dreaming to help control my anxiety. It’s like any problem I’m trying to solve: I can use the time with my thoughts to process what’s bothering me. When I stop and sit with my feelings, I can usually think of something actionable to do that will help me feel better.

Before learning about hypnagogia, I avoided anxious feelings by filling my time alone with to-do lists and falling asleep with the TV on. My therapist explained that acknowledging my thoughts would allow me to put them in perspective or consider solutions instead of avoiding them and letting them get more overwhelming.

Now I find the time with my thoughts so delicious and empowering that I take afternoon naps and savor going in and out of the dream-like state in the mornings. It makes my worries less overwhelming and gives my career an infusion of fresh creativity.

Unfortunately, though, lucid dreaming hasn’t given me the structural engineering skills I needed to figure out how to secure the porch swing.