Medically reviewed by Brandy Hall, MSN, RN, on 03/22/2023
Looking for a way to get the benefits of a power nap without, you know, taking a snooze? Consider trying non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). The practice has been making headlines in recent weeks after the Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that NSDR is one of his go-to ways to relax.
Think of it as Silicon Valley’s answer to the “siesta”. After a hectic or stressful morning, you set yourself up in a quiet room and flick on an NSDR video. It sort of feels like a meditation for sleep, but it’s decidedly not designed to help you doze off. Instead, it promises to put your mind into a deeply restorative, but still alert, state for a short period of time. This time-out can help you feel more calm, focused, and productive for the rest of the day. It can also help empower anyone with anxiety about getting good sleep.
Here’s what to know about this next-gen power nap and how NSDR can offer an executive-level recharge to anyone.
What is non-sleep deep rest?
Non-sleep deep rest is an umbrella term for practices that people use to direct their minds into a state of calm and focus, says Dr. Andrew Huberman, the Stanford University neuroscience professor who coined the term “non-sleep deep rest.” These techniques aren’t intended to induce sleep, but instead help you get into that dreamy, semi-focused state that occurs just before drifting off, when you’re still sort of awake, but your awareness of space and time isn’t totally under your conscious control.
The idea behind NSDR is that getting yourself to a sleep-like state for a short period of time lets the brain rest intensely. This can help you feel restored to take on the rest of your day. Taking this time for deep rest can indeed give you a major boost, according to Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, author of "The Sleep Solution" and "The Rested Child," and Sleep.com Sleep Advisor who sometimes practices NSDR during his lunch break.
“It was always surprising to me how I was barely able to stay awake talking to my last patient of the morning, but after NSDR, I felt great the second half of the day,” he says.
Feeling more energized isn’t the only benefit of NSDR, though. Huberman notes in a recent lecture that 20-minute NSDR sessions can help the brain learn more quickly and increase how long you retain information, due to the practice’s effect on neuroplasticity. Interestingly, Winter says that NSDR may also help you get better sleep come bedtime — a rather ironic outcome of a practice that’s not intended to directly lead to slumber.
How non-sleep deep rest helps with sleep
NSDR’s effect on sleep has to do with feeling in control of our ability to rest. We’ve all had those nights when we’re lying in bed, but sleep just isn’t happening. We watch the numbers tick on the clock, knowing that every minute that goes by is one less minute that we have to sleep, making it more likely we’ll feel exhausted the following day. Getting caught up in that stress and powerlessness makes it even more difficult to fall asleep, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
But if we shift our focus away from sleep and instead to resting, we regain control of the situation, says Winter, who adds that rest can be just as restorative as sleep itself. So, the worst-case scenario is you rest for a few hours, but more likely than not, letting your body slip into a state of relaxation could be just what it needs to finally enable you to get that sleep you need.
“Sleep isn’t always under our control, but rest is. I can tell anyone to close their eyes and rest for 10 minutes. How well you do that depends on your mental state, but you’re still resting,” Winter explains. “It’s a really great gateway to healthy sleep, and a way to come at insomnia from a different angle.”
In that way, NSDR can be used as a type of meditation for sleep, depending on how and when you practice it. If used during the afternoon, it can be a valuable time to recharge the brain and prime it to tackle the rest of your daily tasks. However in the evening, it can be a tool for letting go of trying to control sleep and gently slipping you into a restful state, which may eventually help you doze off.
“It becomes a can’t-lose situation. If you go in to take a nap and you nap — great! But if you don’t and you’re really meditative and work on techniques for deeper rest, now all of a sudden, you’ve got control,” says Winter. “It helps extricate fear of not sleeping from the situation.”
How do you enter non-sleep deep rest
NSDR might be a new term, but chances are that you’re already familiar with two common techniques for this practice: yoga nidra and hypnosis. Yoga nidra is a chilled-out version of yoga that, rather than moving from pose to pose, gets yogis to lie down and listen to structured meditation that guides them through the five layers of self. Each layer fades as you move from one to the next, leaving you in a state of deep rest.
With hypnosis, you get deep rest by putting your mind into “a state of calm and high focus,” according to Huberman. This can be done with the help of a hypnotherapist. However, if you would rather test of NSDR on your own, you can try self-hypnosis with an NSDR podcast or deep relaxation video.
If you want your deep rest to get high-tech, try a Muse headband, a biofeedback device that has been beneficial to some of Winter’s patients.
“The device starts to teach you how to turn your brain off. No matter what someone’s morning was like, some people can put the Muse on and immediately settle themselves,” he says. “It helps you quickly turn mental energy down and get into that meditative deep-rest state.”
For the most part, Winter recommends practicing NSDR during the day, rather than right before bed (bedtime is when a more traditional meditation for sleep could be helpful). That way, you give your mind and body time to reap the benefits of the rest later that day. While you don’t have to practice NSDR every day for it to be effective, consider scheduling it for one specific time of day to help your body know what to expect, he adds.
“We don’t want to surprise the body with a weird period of inactivity and rest during the middle of the day. Set a designated time for it,” advises Winter. He adds that you should have a fixed end time as well, because doing it too long can lead to “a slowdown of inertia and grogginess.”
Finally, adjust your environment to create a peaceful setting. Try things like:
Just like when you practice sleep hygiene, those things “become cues that this is the deep-rest session,” says Winter.