Yes, Your Angry Naps Are Actually Useful
Understanding the power of angry naps saves relationships, helps you be more in touch with yourself, and gives your anger the significance it deserves
Anger was a key descriptor of our lives in 2020, and it’s not looking any better this year. The pandemic unmasked all the failing facets of our society, so we aimed our anger at Government, Police, Healthcare, and the other Big Issues we now suffer from in a more visceral way. This large-scale anger eventually infiltrates the more mundane events of our daily lives, like a heated work Zoom meeting or a fight with our close ones in perpetual isolation. Then anger gives way to fatigue, and that’s where the angry nap comes in. They can be misunderstood, but if you learn where angry naps come from, and if you can harness their unique problem-solving and rejuvenating qualities, you might realize you’ve been doing things right all along.
Why we shut down after experiencing anger or stress
Some people respond to stress or anger by falling asleep — psychologists call it the “learned helplessness” theory. Often used to explain some aspects of depression and anxiety, learned helplessness is a mindset built into an individual who has continuously faced negative and uncontrollable situations, so much so that they stop trying to change their circumstances even when they have the ability to do so.
In early development, learned helplessness might plant its seed when your parents are fighting in the living room for the 45th time, and the screaming is so exhausting that you go to your room, turn off the lights, and fall asleep, because what else can you do? And as you get older and start to face similar or higher levels of stress and anger, your automatic response is to shut down.
Angry naps can be a bit different from the ones triggered by learned helplessness, but for many they’re one and the same. Angry naps are often understood as an escape, an easy way out, but research shows that the exhaustion that comes after anger isn’t just normal — it’s necessary. Your body treats emotionally rich experiences — like a fight with your partner — as high priority messages, and your angry nap is a mechanism that helps you process them.
Angry naps save relationships
Kids know this instinctively, but here’s a reminder: Naps are learning tools. Among several other benefits, napping helps you consolidate memories faster, which is why kindergarteners need to take a nap after falling or burning themselves; it helps them remember what happened so that it doesn’t happen again, or so they can develop better reflexes when it inevitably happens again.
As for the angry part of this nap, consider this study: Four geometric designs were presented to 40 participants who had to copy them by hand without lifting their pencil from the sheet of paper and without going over any line twice. The catch? Half of them were unsolvable. Absolutely infuriating. But the researchers found that when they allowed half of the participants to take a nap and come back, they were likely to spend more time working on this unsolvable task, while the non-nappers were more likely to throw in the towel in frustration.
I’m sure you’ve woken up from a nap reinvigorated, calmer and more patient than you were before unconsciousness claimed you. An angry nap does the same thing, as it combines memory consolidation with the calm needed to process an experience. In the case of an argument with your partner, your friend, your roommate or even your coworker, angry naps help you compartmentalize the different elements that led to the argument and make better sense of them so that you can attempt to solve the problem with a clearer head.
Ultimately, your angry nap is a transitional point where your most emotional and passionate self meets your calmer, more pragmatic, problem-solving self. The combination of the proverbial right and left side of your brain during an angry nap leads you to get in touch with yourself in a new way.
Angry naps are unique moments of grace that help you be more in touch with yourself and your anger
In Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, a book that explores the transformative power of female anger and its ability to transcend into a political movement, Rebecca Traister describes the four months in which she wrote her book as a gift. According to Traister’s research, what is bad isn’t anger itself, it’s the messages that cause us to bottle it up, let it fester, keep it silent, feel shame and isolation for ever having felt it, or rechannel it in inappropriate directions. Her writing process gave her the unique opportunity to explore the dimensions of women’s anger, which led her to be more curious about — and respectful of — her own anger. “In getting to voice and appreciate fury, I had found relief, release, inspiration and exhilaration,” Traister writes.
I understand that right now, whenever you’re reading this, the power of angry naps doesn’t sound like a priority. At time of writing, our anger is probably aimed at the Big Issues that are Government, Police, Trump and so on. But tending to your everyday problems prevents them from clouding your mind; it hinders their ability to fester on grounds better suited for the revolutionary anger Big Issues need.
In the case of angry naps, tending to your problems means fostering an environment that welcomes anger. There’s nothing easy about this task. Entire systems are built upon suppressing anger, especially women’s anger, and more specifically Black women’s anger. But you can always start somewhere. You can talk to your partner, your friends and roommates and whoever else you see fit, about how important it is to express your anger, and about the valuable angry nap that might come after a heated argument. And if you find yourself at the receiving end of that anger, and you’re too exhausted to think after either repressing your anger or fighting back with your own, you should try and lean into that nap knowing that, ultimately, it will help.
At its best, an angry nap is one step back for a giant leap forward. Knowing this can help you turn the negative connotation attached to learned helplessness on its head: Taking an angry nap isn’t an escape or an indulgent way out of a situation you’d rather not be in, it’s the start of a process that leads to a satisfying ending.